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Giving children feedback about their learning

An old Chinese proverb states: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.” This is a succinct summary of a universal truth in learning at any age – involvement in activity is the best way to learn most things. This is never more appropriate than when a young child is learning – the baby mouthing new objects, the toddler closely examining with fingers, eyes and all senses, the older child exploring how an item can be used. But how do these experiences transfer themselves to, and further develop, a child’s mental model of the world?

Much has been said and written about how children learn, from classic theories such as Behaviourism, Constructivism and Socio-culturalism, different approaches such as Montessori and High Scope, through Schemas, Learning Through Play to the exhortation to ensure an experience based on “planned, purposeful play and .... a mix of adult-led and child-initiated activity” of the Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (2012), but what is an effective mix of these varied considerations? In many instances this will depend on individual preferred learning methods, visual, auditory or kinaesthetic and current interests of the children. As early years practitioners one of the best ways we can ensure our success here is to help young children to appreciate what they are finding out about their world and how to use this to further develop their understanding of the world in which they find themselves. As I discuss this, from time to time I will use examples taken from practice; on these occasions all names will have been changed to protect individual privacy. I will also refer to some ideas and techniques currently in use, some of which were not necessarily developed for the early years, but which nevertheless have bearing and validity in our field of practice.

Rewards and praise

There is frequent debate over the merits of praise and stickers in achieving desired results or behaviours in children. Whilst praise is good, it is easy to slip into an automatic praising response which can become self-defeating. “Ooh, that’s nice” or “Lovely!” can become meaningless when applied repeatedly to the efforts of a child to represent an idea they have had, when with a little thought practitioners can introduce a reflective discussion of intentions, methods and future possibilities.  Effective feedback is important here; when discussing children’s projects open-ended questions are important, with thinking time being allowed and support for ‘pole-bridging’ so the child themselves is enabled to make suggestions for future changes or improvements. This kind of feedback can hearten a dispirited child or gently refocus the child who has begun to ‘wander’.

When speaking of rewards, I am particularly thinking of stamps and stickers, which, whilst initially effective can rapidly become self-defeating. For example, I am reminded of a child who was nominally toilet trained but had difficulty asking for the toilet for ‘Number twos’. Practitioners decided to give her a sticker whenever she ‘performed’ in the appropriate place – this worked very well, until the practitioners withdrew the stickers after a period with no accidents. The child continued to request her sticker, but on being told she was ‘a big girl now’, she returned to her previous unreliability, with practitioners dumbfounded as to why she could regress so!

Professional awareness

One of the most effective ways of feeding back to children and encouraging them to carry their learning forward is extremely simple, but sometimes difficult to put into practice in a busy early years setting; that is to be aware of their current interests, adjusting your provision to enable children to engage in meaningful activities at their own pace, experiencing this learning alongside them. This was beginning to be suggested as long ago as the mid-twentieth century by educationalists such as Edmund Holmes, although it was to be a considerable time before the concept was more universally accepted. Linda Pound (2005) observed that “In play, children see the point of what they are doing and thinking about, stretching themselves to the limit of their abilities. This is often not the case when they are asked to complete an adult-directed task.”

Study 1

Mary (4.6) is an articulate child; the only child in a family of ‘older’ parents with a limited peer social group outside of the nursery, she has a somewhat ‘adult’ vocabulary and speech patterns. She is achieving well against the early learning goals in most areas.

Mary was intrigued by a study of magnetism within the pre-school room.  She had responded to the group introduction by volunteering to repeat back to the group the shared learning outcomes and success criteria. “We will be getting cleverer about things by using these (indicating the variety of magnets the practitioner had been demonstrating) to see what sticks...is attracted to them. (a frown as she sought for and remembered the word used in the introduction) We will know we are getting cleverer because we will make groups with the things and the teachers will know because we can show them”.

Subsequently Mary was able to move independently around the inside area testing objects. When the practitioner spoke to her later, she was able to reel off what ‘stuck’ and what didn’t.  Knowing Mary’s developing thinking skills, the practitioner encouraged Mary to test a further group of items, this time making predictions of the outcomes, largely correctly. She encouraged Mary to think about what she had discovered, asking her “So, if you needed to tell Mummy about what you’ve learnt about magnets and objects, what would you say?”

Mary paused, a slight frown on her face then she said “I think that metal things will stick, be attracted to magnets but plastic or wood or people won’t.” The practitioner remarked that Mary had made a good comment, perhaps she might carry on testing this idea during the rest of the day. Mary simply responded “Now I want a drink and some fruit and a rest.”

A little later in the outside area, the practitioner was startled by Mary, who grabbed her arm “Come and look! This isn’t right!” Mary had followed the gentle suggestion and been testing her theory outside. She was puzzled by ropes on the climbing bridge. “They’re rope, so they shouldn’t stick, but LOOK!” She held her magnet against one and it was definitely attracted. To emphasise her point Mary let go of the magnet, which stayed firmly in place.

Practitioner: “I see what you mean. What do you think about that?”

Mary: “Well, it’s not metal, it’s rope..... but the magnet is attracted to it.... I don’t know!” Mary sat on the bridge, scowling.

Practitioner: “Well, let’s see. You have decided that some things are attracted and some things aren’t.”

Mary: “Metal – chair legs, hinges – but not your ring! (pause to think about a metal that wasn’t attracted) Some metals are attracted. But paper and people and clothes and wood aren’t.”

Practitioner: “So, now what do you think about this rope?”

Mary: (much frowning, lip-chewing) “We-l-l. I think it’s not proper rope. You know not normal stuff. (pause) I know! I think it’s got metal in it!”

Practitioner: “Oh, that’s an idea. How can you find out?”

Mary: “When Derek (one of the Directors) comes I’ll ask him if we can cut the rope to see inside. I bet it’s got metal in. But I wonder why your ring won’t stick?”

Practitioner: “I do, too – we’ll have to think about that!”

So, here we see a practitioner skilfully leading a child forward – she knows the child’s level of development and is able to encourage her to think her way through a puzzle, to enable her to suggest a way to test her hypothesis (not that it would have been particularly attractive to the Director!) and see another anomaly in her keyperson’s puzzling ring.

In many ways this is a classic example of Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’, in that a more knowledgeable partner can support a child’s progress to reason through to a higher level of understanding.

Study 2

Jake (9 months) has been attending the nursery full time from the age of three months. He is well settled in the baby room, having built good relations with all regular baby room team members as well as his keyperson. He is developing well, sitting and attempting to crawl. He is able to engage with individuals by eye contact and babbling.

One morning, he is busy exploring a wooden roll along toy, with a small bell inside. He holds it in his hands, turning it around, shaking it to make it jingle, then poking between the bars to explore the small bell. He puts it down, where it rolls a short distance – he watches, reaches forward, picks it up and again explores it. This time he feels around the outside as well as between the bars.

His keyperson, who has been watching him as she sees to another child, approaches on her hands and knees.

Practitioner:”Jake – what’s that? Can I see?” She pauses, sitting back on her heels, holding her hand out.

Jake watches her, holding the toy at arm’s length. He shakes it, smiling as it jingles. Looks at practitioner, who smiles back “That’s good, Jake – can I see. Please?” she again holds her hand out. This time Jake drops the toy into her hand.  The practitioner copies Jake’s careful observations of the toy, then, in placing it on the floor she gives it a little push, so it rolls towards Jake. He watches it but makes no move. The Practitioner picks it up, shakes it then replaces it on the floor, pushing it more forcefully towards the child. Jake watches intently but makes no move. The practitioner then leans across, rolling it back towards herself. “Oh! Here it comes!”

Then she rolls it back to Jake, who smiles but still makes no move. She rolls it back towards herself, laughing then says “Jake’s turn!” as she rolls it back towards him. This time Jake looks at the toy. He then looks at the practitioner, before knocking the toy away, smiling. The practitioner retrieves it “Oops! Here we go, Jake’s turn again!” She rolls it towards him, this time making sure it lands in front of him in easy reach. With a chuckle Jake looks at the toy, his keyperson and then with a purposeful movement makes an effort to send it back.

Practitioner:”Wow, Jake! That’s fun!” laughing she continues the game as Jake becomes more engaged, chuckling as he makes increasingly accurate efforts at returning the toy.

In this example a much younger child is encouraged to join a spontaneous game building on his interest in a jingling toy. This interest is encouraging him to find out as much as he can about his environment and how he can change it as well as developing turn-taking and early interactions. This reflects what Bruner (1996) called ‘joint involvement episodes’, the patient repetitions of the practitioner allowing Jake the time to understand this simple game, which he subsequently returned to frequently.

Clear understanding

Another important way to involve children in their learning, so they can appreciate and plan further for themselves is by careful explanation of what is included in the planned, adult initiated activities which are needed to provide a balanced experience within early years in the context of The Early Years Foundation Stage (2012) If activities are carefully, comprehensively introduced, with clear learning outcomes and success criteria, it can be possible to encourage reflective thinking in pre-school aged children. A method I have seen used effectively is to integrate widget symbols into this introduction, which can then be referred to as each child, or group of children undertake the activity, reminding them of what they are learning (or ‘getting cleverer at’), how they will know whether they have and how we (the adults) will know, so that, as they finish some will be able to spend some time talking about their activity, deciding if they have managed the aim or whether they need a little more time. This closely reflects the ‘traffic light’ system referred to by Nicola Call (and featured in the government publication “The Assessment for Learning Strategy”) using the statements: Green meaning ‘I understand’; Amber’ - I’m not sure’ and Red – ‘I don’t understand yet’.  Note the use of a ‘positive negative’; as Nicola Call says “The language used with children will affect their attitudes towards challenge”. This is an example of a technique not designed for use with the early years, but one that with a little imagination and careful discussion either singly or in small groups can be adapted to involve children in reflecting on their own learning. By familiarising young children with the practice of discussing objectives and success criteria, alongside a quantifiable method of self-assessment they are being introduced to a valuable tool for later learning and helping them to extend and sustain their thinking about their learning.

Peer coaching

Study 3

Jarek (4.6) is a newly arrived Polish child, whose English is limited. He has found it difficult to settle in the nursery but has tried to find activities to occupy himself and tries hard to make himself understood. Practitioners have noticed that he is adept with construction materials, particularly a Meccano-type toy, where he shows he can use pictorial guidance to construct an object.

Tom (4.8), an English-speaking child, notices that Jarek has made a sword from Meccano. He approaches the practitioner, asking for her to make him a sword too. The practitioner responds that Jarek has used the picture, maybe Tom could try that. Tom sits randomly turning over Meccano pieces, ignoring Jarek as he moves the pictures closer to him .Tom is becoming agitated; pushing Meccano pieces around before he looks at the practitioner, close to tears

“I want a sword, but you won’t make me one and he’s got one!”

The practitioner explains that Jarek has made it himself, perhaps if Tom asks Jarek might help him to make one. Tom scowls briefly then looks again at Jarek’s sword. He leans across, picking up the picture and says

“Jarek –yours is a good sword, like this. Can you help me make one?”

Jarek smiles, points to his sword, then the picture;

“We make?”

Tom smiles, then nods and moves closer to Jarek. They work together, largely by action, although Jarek makes occasional comments “here, see?” “like this” the boys soon make swords to their satisfaction. They subsequently go off to be ‘Power Rangers’ together.

In this example we see another aspect of learning in that clearly Tom’s motivation is intrinsic, in that he really wants to make a sword, in order to make his subsequent play more satisfying; he clearly enjoys the results of his efforts which in turn makes the achievement its own reward. Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy, one’s belief in one’s ability to meet self-set goals, is interesting to consider here. Although Tom and Jarek are still both quite young, already Jarek views himself as capable, while Tom does not seem to have the same confidence in his abilities. It would be interesting to review these children’s progress in future years to see how this is reflected. In encouraging Tom to seek help from Jarek, the practitioner is invoking Vygotsky’s emphasis on the social aspects of learning in particular, peer-coaching, and helping him to deal with possible further failure by presenting it as a challenge.


All the examples from practice cited show children highly engaged because they are truly motivated to achieve a goal. They have decided what is important to them, within the provision and resources offered, which they follow in their different ways using the support available at that time. The question of rewards and praise as discussed previously is almost academic, because the activity is its own reward. Practitioners need to remain aware at all times of what is going on with the children for whom they care. They should be confident in their judgment of when their intervention is necessary, or a ‘nudge’ is all that is required. This professional expertise is, I feel, the real key to praising and helping children to take ownership and develop their learning, enabling them to become effective and competent lifelong learners.


Call, Nicola, with Featherstone, Sally; The Thinking Child; Network  Educational Press Ltd, 2003

Pound, Linda; How Children Learn: From Montessori to Vygotsky; Step Forward Publishing, 2005

Bruner, J.S. The Culture of Education; 1996

The Early Years Foundation Stage; 2012

Further reading

The Assessment for Learning Strategy, DCSF-00341—2008

Stewart, Nancy; How Children Learn: The characteristics of effective early learning; Early Education; 2011

Sue Ridgway
I have worked in Early Years since the late eighties, so have seen lots of changes. I have worked mainly in the PVI, both in pack away and daycare settings as well as tutoring and assessing on a freelance basis for the Pre-school Learning Alliance. I have been a member of the Early Years Foundation Stage Forum since 2004. In July 2010 I achieved a Foundation Degree in the Early Years.
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