Theory and practice

Parent Guide: What are the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning?

Sue Allingham explains how little ones learn.
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April 21, 2022
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • The Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning are maybe the most central area of focus for early years practitioners in the UK.
  • Read on as Sue Allingham outlines what they are and how you can watch out for and support them at home.
  • She talks about the importance of three characteristics: playing and exploring, active learning, and creating and thinking critically.

Did you know that the daily happenings in your child’s setting have to be informed by something called ‘Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning’?

This means that everything at the setting, including the environments that your children are active in throughout the day, has been thought about and developed with these Characteristics in mind. They are the three characteristics that drive our teaching and signpost to us that a child is learning:

  • Playing and exploring – Children investigate and experience things, and ‘have a go’.
  • Active learning – Children concentrate and keep on trying if they encounter difficulties, and enjoy achievements.
  • Creating and thinking critically – Children have and develop their own ideas, make links between ideas, and develop strategies for doing things.

But why are they so important? And how can they help you understand your child’s development better during lockdown and beyond?

In this article, we are going to unpick why the Characteristics are important enough to be statutory for Early Years settings, why they really matter, and how we can watch out for and develop them at home.

Before we dive in, remember that your home is not a nursery or school, and will offer its own unique opportunities.

  • It is important not to impose false structures on your time. Go with the flow, and welcome learning opportunities throughout the day.
  • You don’t need any expensive tools or resources. Anything and everything involved in your daily life can help support learning.
  • Encouraging children to develop the Characteristics of Effective Learning isn’t difficult, and you don’t need to be a teacher to do it.
  • It’s all about switching children on to learning and using what they know to make links and think about things in different ways.

What are the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning?

When we think of ‘teaching and learning’ it is easy to think about being taught to read, write and understand mathematical strategies. But it’s easy to overlook that there are skills and knowledge that are vital to develop and practice alongside more academic skills in order for it all to become embedded, practised, and investigated. These are the ‘Characteristics’ and another way of looking at them is to call them the skills we need for life.

Whilst all this might sound a little complicated, it doesn’t have to be. There is a great deal that can be done at home to develop these skills, and it’s just a matter of looking differently at everyday things you’re already doing, and making some small changes here and there.

The Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning are divided into three sections. They’re all interconnected and overlap with one another, and hopefully you’ll already recognise a lot of these characteristics in your children. All children demonstrate each of them at some time – provided they’re given the opportunities to do so.

Characteristics of Effective Teaching & Learning: Playing and exploring

When children are playing there are a great deal of important skills being developed. And the best part is that there is no need for expensive equipment or toys for this to happen.

How many times have you watched your child open a present, put the gift to one side and continue playing with the box and the paper? We might be a bit disappointed that our choice of gift is being temporarily ignored, but there’s no doubt  it’s a delightful experience for the child.

This delight is shown in the ‘engagement’ they demonstrate in what they are doing. When a child – or adult for that matter – is really engaged in what they are doing, then they are focused and not easily distracted. Think about when you are reading or doing something you really enjoy. You’re not happy to be interrupted because you are concentrating – this means you are engaged with what you are doing.

There are three strands under this characteristic. They are:

  • Finding out and exploring
  • Showing curiosity about objects, events and people
  • Using senses to explore the world around them
  • Engaging in open-ended activity
  • Showing particular interests
  • Playing with what they know
  • Pretending objects are things from their experience
  • Representing their experiences in play
  • Taking on a role in their play
  • Acting out experiences with other people
  • Being willing to ‘have a go’
  • Initiating activities
  • Seeking challenge
  • Showing a ‘can do’ attitude
  • Taking a risk, engaging in new experiences, and learning by
    trial and error

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You may well realise that you are doing a lot of them anyway and you don’t need a very big space, garden or lots of resources to play and explore.

Instead, look at the things you do and say everyday when you are together, and thread some ‘wondering’ questions into that routine.

For example, you can ask, I wonder:

  • What would happen if we went a different way to the shops?
  • If we will meet anyone we know?
  • If it will rain today?

The list goes on and on and you will think of many more too. Then comes the challenge of finding an answer and what you then do with the knowledge you have both gained together. To do so, it’s time to add ‘how’ to the questions:

I wonder how:

  • It would look if…
  • It would feel if…
  • It would sound if…

And again we have an endless list. Neither of you will know what any of the answers are going to be but you’ll be exploring and investigating together – and that’s what matters.

What all that means is you’re both engaged in active learning, which brings us nicely onto the next subject.

Characteristics of Effective Teaching & Learning: Active learning

If you are engaged in what you are doing then you’re motivated to do more – that’s what keeps the learning active. So in many ways this second characteristic is about moving the thinking forward.

Once again we have three strands that explain this characteristic. They are:

  • Being involved and concentrating
  • Maintaining focus on their activity for a period of time
  • Showing high levels of energy, fascination
  • Not easily distracted
  • Paying attention to details
  • Keeping on trying
  • Persisting with activity when challenges occur
  • Showing a belief that more effort or a different approach will pay off
  • Bouncing back after difficulties
  • Enjoying achieving what they set out to do
  • Showing satisfaction in meeting their own goals
  • Being proud of how they accomplished something – not just the end result
  • Enjoying meeting challenges for their own sake rather than external rewards or praise

We can see here how the characteristics of being engaged and motivated develop into the vital skills of persistence and resilience. Understanding that it doesn’t matter if things go wrong the first time, because we can usually have another go, maybe using a different method, or a tool. This can be a difficult enough skill for adults at times, but a vital one that we can model to children as we go about our day.

For example, if you are toilet training your child then it’s fair to say it won’t always go smoothly. But it will work in the end so accept the situation and work with your child, encouraging them all the way. By doing so, you’re modelling to them how it’s a challenge, but also celebrating the little successes along the way.

Don’t dwell on the mishaps – they are all part of the journey. Your Key Person at your setting will help with this too and hopefully, even though we’re distant right now, you can still stay in touch and share strategies with one another. This type of motivation and persisting when things don’t go right the first time can easily be modelled through play too.

Reflect on things like building with blocks; what happens if it all falls down? It’s frustrating, but rather than getting fed up, show how we can try again. Work with your child on what you might do differently this time. Perhaps take pictures as you go along to see what worked and what didn’t.

If you’re out and about perhaps there could be a challenge to balance on a wall, or race to the corner with a sibling – remembering that it’s not all about winning.

Notice the third strand in this characteristic is about helping children to enjoy what they have achieved, and to feel proud of what they have accomplished. Whatever it is, it’s important to note this is not about extrinsic rewards like stickers or treats. It’s about knowing that trying something and having a go is worthwhile too, which is why it’s so important to enjoy every small success. It’s about accepting the challenge – persisting with it is the reward.‍

Characteristics of Effective Teaching & Learning: Creating and thinking critically

You could define ‘critical thinking’ as helping children have their own ideas — thinking of ideas, finding ways to solve problems, or new ways to do things.

Here are some behaviours that exhibit critical thinking skills:

  • Making links
  • Making links and noticing patterns in their experience
  • Making predictions
  • Testing their ideas
  • Developing ideas of grouping, sequences, cause and effect
  • Choosing ways to do things
  • Planning, making decisions about how to approach a task, solve a problem and reach a goal
  • Checking how well their activities are going
  • Changing strategy as needed
  • Reviewing how well the approach worked

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Critical Thinking – A grown up skill?

‘Critical thinking’ sounds like such a grown up skill, but the skills can be encouraged from very early on. Take getting dressed in the morning for example. Deciding what to wear is about solving a problem involving various bits of information. For example:

  • What is the weather forecast? Will the weather change during the day? How can we find out?
  • If a certain item of clothing is dirty what could be worn instead? What would go with it?
  • Are we walking, going in the car, on public transport? Or a mix of these?

Even if you’re in a hurry, it’s still possible to build some problem-solving. This can be quick and informal — helping your child choose between a limited set of clothes for the day, or what to eat for breakfast, and the plates or bowls they might need. But you shouldn’t have an answer in mind before you present this challenge — keep it meaningful and open-ended.

Where does an idea come from?

Ideas always come from somewhere. They are based on experiences that we’ve already had that enable us to bring some experience to a new situation. For example, it’s a lovely sunny day. What does your little one want to do? Perhaps you might go for a walk to the park, sit in the garden, get the paddling pool out or have a water fight?

As adults, we have these ideas because we have had the experiences. But in order for children to have these ideas too, they’ll need to experience them first. These experiences do not need to be expensive outings, or new toys and equipment. For example, looking out of the window could provide the potential for all sorts of ideas, no matter what the view may be. It’s all a matter of recognising the little details and opportunities that are all around you.  

Building the right experiences for critical thinking

Using the window as an example, let’s think about what you might notice to talk about with your child. Any of these could be the basis for a conversation, a learning experience, or an outing:

  • Cars
  • Lorries
  • Emergency vehicles
  • People
  • Trees
  • Flowers
  • Birds
  • The weather
  • Planes
  • Day time/night time

The crucial part of any experience are the interactions you have while you are together, whatever you are doing. Remember the ‘wondering questions’ from the first article? These are all about forming ideas. Once the ideas are flowing, the learning starts.

It’s not about trying to rush them to writing their name or counting to a million.

This was recently said to me by someone when I was explaining the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning to them. Too often, being in a Nursery or School is seen as just being about learning to read, write and count, but there’s a lot more to teaching and learning than this.  

Building interactions and independence

Let’s think of our children as capable learners, because they all are. They are all mathematicians, readers, writers, scientists and artists in various ways. Of course, we want our children to be able to investigate, explore and embed the skills and knowledge they gain at their settings — so we want to give them the skills to connect what they’ve already learned.

Let’s look at how what we’ve covered so far can help us. These five things are key:

  • Wondering questions
  • Interactions
  • Noticing things
  • Independence
  • Quality time (this doesn’t have to be hours, a few minutes can make all the difference)

It’s all about realising the meaning of what you are doing, and noticing the potential of what your child is demonstrating. Let’s just look at our routines as we’re waking up and getting ready for the day, and how we might find some ‘hidden skills’ in everyday tasks.

  • Looking at the calendar (sequencing, numbers and reading)
  • Talking about cereal (vocabulary of quantity, reading, counting etc)
  • Television or radio (Talk about what you’re hearing/ watching)
  • Look at the clock (analogue or digital) and talk about the time. How long does it take to….? What time is your favourite programme on? Talk about the time throughout the day.

Often enough, all we need to support these core learning skills is a bit of structure. Here are some activities and questions you can use throughout the day to help your child start thinking and learning.

Activity ideas to help develop The Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning

Ideas for when you’re going out and about

  • Make a shopping list together, even if you don’t really need one. Let your child write some of it.
  • Reading shop names, advertising, road signs, bus numbers etc.
  • Talk about what road signs tell us to do or not to do
  • Read makes and models of cars, and look at number plates
  • Talk about your shopping using language of quantity, and weigh things if you can
  • Count things — How many trees, dogs or prams do you see?
  • Where appropriate, touch and feel things to talk about texture
  • Collect natural objects to take home
  • Take photographs to talk about later

Ideas for when you’re spending time at home

  • Prepare meals or snacks together. Remember to use language of quantity as you read recipes and packaging. Also encourage the independent use of kitchen utensils, whenever appropriate
  • Read a story together
  • Write a diary together when you can. Use the photographs you’ve taken, or draw what you have seen or done and each write a piece. Recounting experiences is a vital thinking skill
  • Watch television together
  • Dance and sing to the radio

Ideas for when you’re getting ready for bed

  • What time is bath time or bedtime? What does that look like on the clock?
  • Use your bedtime routine to reflect on the day, and think about tomorrow.
  • Perhaps check the weather forecast and decide on the clothes for the next day
  • If you share a story, let your child talk about the pictures or their favourite bit

Your home and the environment you live in, wherever you live, are a powerful source of opportunities to explore the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning with your child. You will both be teaching and learning together when you become aware of these opportunities.

Dr Sue Allingham has both an MA and a Doctorate in Early Childhood Education from the University of Sheffield. She is the author of Transitions in the Early Years and writes regularly for Early Years Educator – EYE – magazine where she is Consultant Editor. Sue is also an independent consultant and trainer with her company Early Years Out of the Box Consultancy.

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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