For many experienced practitioners, Sustained Shared Thinking is simply a very instinctive way of interacting with children. But that doesn’t mean it’s instinctive for every practitioner, especially when the concept is new to them.
So, as a leader, how can you help your less experienced practitioners introduce Sustained Shared Thinking? On top of that, exactly what role do the environment, and parents play in establishing the practice? Here are some ideas from Kathy to explore with your team.
1. Let children play with the ‘facts’
Sustained Shared Thinking needs to be about curiosity, proposing ideas, and thinking about solutions. It’s not necessarily about searching for facts, or the ‘right answer’.
“It’s about making a child feels at ease,” says Kathy, “that they’re feeling like they’re going on a journey with you.”
“If children are to be encouraged to reflect en route to becoming lifelong learners,” they say, “it's important that they are offered a less fixed view of the world, one where curiosity and wonder, rather than correct solutions and consensus building, fuel their investigations.”
If the adult only wants the correct answer, or the best solution, then they’re missing the point. They leave no room for the child to wrestle with their own ideas and concepts, and that’s where the real learning takes place.
2. Ask the right questions
“For new practitioners who haven’t got much experience with Sustained Shared Thinking, I’d always start with open-ended questions,” says Kathy. “Questions that start with ‘How’ ‘What’ ‘When’ ‘Why’ and ‘Where’.”
These questions leave all options on the table. They stop the children worrying about getting it right or wrong, allowing them to focus on what they think.
That’s why Kathy says you need to be careful with ‘Why’ questions too, even if they are open-ended. It can be hard for the youngest children to grasp the concept of why sometimes, and if they don’t feel like they know the answer, they can easily close themselves down.
That doesn’t mean open-ended questions are the only option you have. In fact, other routes may be much better in certain situations, especially if the child has EAL or is pre-verbal.
“In certain situations, the questioning might not involve your classic open-ended questions,” says Kathy. “It might be a running commentary, or there might not even be any language at all. Because you’re trying to work something out together.”
“Imagine you’re trying to put together an obstacle course and the planks are too short. How could you solve that together? How can you look at it differently? The child might start moving things around to support the plank, the practitioner might bring another log over. In that way, you’re thinking together and solving that problem together. So that’s how the communication can be verbal and non-verbal.”
- Kathy Brodie, Creator of Early Years TV, Author, and Trainer
3. Be ready to take the opportunity
Setting aside specific time for practitioners to focus on Sustained Shared Thinking is one way you can help them develop the skill. But it’s also about making sure they’re ready at any time when they see that initial spark.
“It could happen anywhere and you have to be ready to jump on those conversations when they start,” says Kathy, “because it could be at the most unexpected times, waiting for mum, or waiting in line to go to the toilet.”
That’s why it can be helpful to guide your practitioners to begin with on recognising that initial spark, so that they can spot the curiosity of the child and help to sustain that thinking for as long as possible.
4. Support practitioners with peer observations
“Because it's such a practical thing – when you see it, you get it – I always advise that you do peer observations to help train Sustained Shared Thinking,” explains Kathy.
To support peer observations, you’ll need to recognise the members of your team who are strong at Sustained Shared Thinking, and give inexperienced practitioners the time out of ratio to watch and learn from them.
“Choose someone who is really good at Sustained Shared Thinking in the book corner, for example, and either have the less experienced practitioner watch them or video it,” says Kathy. “The key is that you let those practitioners talk afterwards, so that both of them can understand why they made those decisions in the moment.”
Often, the questioning can even help the more experienced practitioner to understand why they do things that seem like simple instinct, helping everyone’s practice improve.
If you don’t have the resources, Kathy recommends Siren Films’ video recordings of Sustained Shared Thinking in action. But the best way is to try and do it in your setting, so you have that time for reflection, and practitioners understand the practice in the context of your environment and children. “If you can do it in your own setting, then that’s the gold standard,” explains Kathy.
5. Use it in a group
It’s not only an adult and child that can engage in Sustained Shared Thinking. Because it’s all about pooling knowledge, other children can also have things to offer one another in a group scenario.
“Children can learn from each other through Sustained Shared Thinking,” says Kathy, “because they might have different experiences. The practitioner needs to know when to stand back, and allow them to learn from each other, because learning from your peers is often far more powerful.”
This is where the truly experienced practitioner knows when to get involved, and when to stand back. And that’s just something that comes with experience.
“I would argue that you can even see Sustained Shared Thinking taking place between a practitioner and a baby. I’m thinking of the classic example where a baby drops something, they look, the adult picks it up, they drop it again. What they’re saying is ‘Everything I’m going to drop always goes to the floor’. The adult and baby, they look at each other, sharing the moment. The practitioner will be making supportive noises, returning the objects, maintaining eye contact. In my mind, that’s all Sustained Shared Thinking.”
- Kathy Brodie, Early Years TV Creator, Author, and Trainer.
6. Try, try, and try again
“Practitioners need to be aware that it won’t work all the time, and that doesn’t mean you’ve failed,” says Kathy, “it just means it’s not top of the child’s mind.”
“We all know that when it’s a windy day the children go a bit mad, or if it’s snowing you needn’t bother trying to have a conversation about your summer holidays because the snow is far more interesting than anything you have to say.”
Getting any new practice right is always a journey. That’s where it’s important that you stand up as a leader, and explain to your staff that it’s about learning from those experiences in order to understand where Sustained Shared Thinking works best for you.
7. Build your environment right
So, there are some ideas to help your less experienced practitioners, but there are two more important components we need to discuss – environment, and parent partnerships.
One great way to spark more episodes of Sustained Shared Thinking is about setting your environment up for provocation. Kathy has talked in the past about how leaving trails of curiosity can provide the best conversation starters. It could be as subtle as a tiny door left in a skirting board, or a peacock feather in the garden with some glitter leading to it.
You can tailor these provocations to match child interests in order to make sure they’re more engaged, and that’s where Sustained Shared Thinking can really come into its own. By having extended, curiosity-filled conversations, the child’s interests can be extended further and further.
More importantly, you learn more about those interests and where they come from. Do they like dinosaurs because they’re mysterious and old? Or is it because they’re ferocious and big? Once you understand the thinking behind the interest, it’s easier to extend that interest more broadly.
Provocation aside, it is important that you have the space in your setting for more considered, one-on-one conversations.
“We often advise having cosy corners or quiet areas to talk together,” says Kathy, “which I would absolutely recommend, because it is important to have areas where you can withdraw one-to-one.”
In the REPEY study, they noted that it's a parent’s proactive behaviour towards their child’s learning that provides the best basis for Sustained Shared Thinking to take place in an early years setting.
As you well know, there can be many differences in the home learning environment in different households. It’s important not to add any extra pressure to parents without understanding the pressures they’re already under.
Here are some tips from Kathy on how to engage parents with Sustained Shared Thinking:
Share conversations that you’ve had at the setting with parents. Sometimes they can add more context and extend the thinking further.
Find out about the home learning environment, in a sensitive and appropriate way, and suggest opportunities for Sustained Shared Thinking, such as having conversations during bath time or sharing books together at bedtime. Try not to make assumptions, especially about families having spare time in the evenings – they may be working shifts or have other care responsibilities.
Suggest conversations with grandparents, who may have more time and interesting experiences to share.
Sending books or a ‘class teddy’ home is a good catalyst for conversations at home, provided you’re sensitive to family situations such as literacy issues.
So, can you do it all through Sustained Shared Thinking?
Hopefully, you’ve already found lots of ways to help your less experienced practitioners integrate Sustained Shared Thinking more and more into their practice.
But just how useful can Sustained Shared Thinking be as a tool?
“It depends on your practitioners,” says Kathy “but absolutely with the more confident and knowledgeable practitioners you can do everything through sustained shared thinking.”
With the opportunity to extend interests, and to get the children involved in deep-level thinking, those conversations that take place between experienced practitioners and children can encompass all areas of the EYFS.
That goes for paperwork too. Once you’re regularly having these kinds of conversations with children, it’s not going to be hard to think of moments to record for your tracking.
If you want to read more about Sustained Shared Thinking, there’s already a number of fantastic resources littered throughout the two articles on the subject (if you missed out on part one, check it out here). Here are some more articles and books you might like to check out.
Good question by Iram Siraj-Blatchford and Laura Manni – This piece we mentioned earlier from the authors of the EPPE study has lots of great examples to help you put Sustained Shared Thinking in context.
Sustained Shared Thinking by National Quality Standard Australia – Another great document from Australia that covers a few interesting case studies to help you understand Sustained Shared Thinking in practice.
Sustained Shared Thinking by Kathy Brodie – Kathy’s own book on the topic covers every single area that affects Sustained Shared Thinking. The complete, accessible guide.
Early Childhood Matters by Kathy Sylva – From the authors of the EPPE comes this book discussing their findings, including how they came to regard Sustained Shared Thinking as so important.