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The Role of the Adult in Early Years Settings: Part 1

“If you work at the parts, the whole will be a success” (Anon.)

This article explores the many different ways in which adults interact with young children in early years settings.  Research demonstrates that the heart of quality practice lies within the interactions that take place between adults and young children and reveals how, in a typical day, early years practitioners might have over 1000 ‘interpersonal interactions’ with children.  The process of this interactive engagement between adults and children is explored through a framework known as the ‘plural practitioner’.  It clarifies what the adult role entails and outlines practical strategies that practitioners can employ in order to ensure their provision is effective for supporting young children’s learning and development.  Before exploring this process, we will consider a key debate amongst early years provision, namely the role of the adult in adult-led and child-initiated activities.

Adult-led or child-initiated?

The new Early Years Foundation Stage Statutory Framework states ‘Each area of learning and development must be implemented through planned, purposeful play and through a mix of adult-led and child-initiated activity’ (1.9).  This balance needs to shift towards more formal activities during the Reception year in order to ensure children are ‘ready’ for Y1.  At the same time, practitioners need to take into consideration the key characteristics of effective learning – ‘playing and exploring’, ‘active learning’ and ‘creating and thinking critically’.  How do early years practitioners translate these requirements and guidance?  A small piece of recent research undertaken by the author reveals some mixed interpretations of the adult role in early years settings with the majority of practitioners holding a somewhat polarised ‘either/or’ view in relation to adult-led and child-initiated activities. For example, ‘adult-led’ meant as one practitioner put it ‘the adult sets the agenda, rules and aims of the activity and tells the child when and where the play can happen whilst child-initiated means that the child chooses what, how, when and where to play’.  Often adult-led activities were associated with terms such as ‘closed’ or ‘structured’ whilst child-initiated activities were associated with terms such as ‘open-ended’ or ‘free’.  The interpretation of the two types of activities appears to centre on issues of control and whether this lies with the adult or the child.  There were also some mixed interpretations of what the adult role ought to be. A significant number of practitioners felt that child-initiated activities should never involve an adult whilst others considered that it was appropriate for the adult to support the child in child-initiated activities or intervene to promote particular skills, knowledge and/or understanding.   In other cases the adult role was viewed as a ‘guide’ or as a ‘support’ or as a ‘prompt’ or ‘scaffolder’ for both adult-led and child-initiated activities.   A more direct teaching role was envisaged by a minority of the practitioners where the adult ‘dictates’, ‘directs’ or ‘determines’ what happens although this style of interaction was always associated with adult-led activities. Some also considered that only adult-led play had a deliberate educational intention whilst others felt that child-initiated play always entailed learning on the part of the child.  What is your view?

This research suggests some confusion exists amongst the profession in relation to what the adult role should involve, particularly in terms of the appropriate nature and degree of direction, intervention and interaction with the child. Other research has confirmed this common tension amongst early years practitioners - whether or not to ‘intervene’ - and that different pedagogical approaches within children’s play entail both subtle and stark contrasts in terms of the amount or level of adult interaction and involvement in children’s activities.  The uncertainly and confusion surrounding adult intervention may arise from apparently conflicting research and theory on this role and possible confusion of the statutory requirements of the EYFS which supports both adult-led and child-initiated activity.  For example, Bruce’s work on ‘free flow play’ could be read as non-interventionist, as do some interpretations the work of Piaget.  Similarly, Goldschmeid’s notion of ‘heuristic play’ presents the adult as a ‘silent companion’ who sits near the young child whilst they freely explore the various resources provided by the adult. In contrast, the work of Vygotsky and Bruner support a more interactive stance in which the adult actively ‘scaffolds’ the child’s learning and can act as a primary vehicle for knowledge construction, whilst Bandura’s social-learning theory emphasises the importance of adult role-modelling for children, suggesting a clear proactive stance.   The key essence of the debate regarding the adult role is encapsulated in the idea of whether we ought to be ‘developing’ a child or ‘watching’ a child develop.

Adult-initiated and Child-initiated

This article can help practitioners to address potential conflict and uncertainty about their role by illuminating the nature of the interactions adults have with young children in supporting learning and development and how these might translate into practice.  In doing so, it offers the terms ‘child-initiated’ and ‘adult-initiated’ activities in place of terms such as ‘child-led’ or ‘adult-directed’.  The use of the terms child-initiated and adult-initiated activities can help practitioners to better understand the reciprocal nature of adult-child interactions and might help to diminish uncertainties regarding adult intervention.  By viewing all activities and exchanges as a process of initiation which immediately becomes an interconnected negotiation, rather than as an act of being led or directed by either the child or the adult, we can envisage the adult-child relationship as one that involves interchangeable processes of ‘give-and-take’ and mutual co-construction.  This removes the emphasis from being either the child’s or the adult’s agenda that needs to pre-dominate.  Instead, it enables us to engage in a dance with the child, sometimes together, sometimes apart, with one leading the other at different times depending on the nature of the ‘dance’.

This idea of co-construction rests on recognition from the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology that children do not progress effectively in their learning and development without engagement with their social and cultural context. In this article, the role the adult plays within this process is articulated through the framework of the ‘plural practitioner’ which acknowledges that practitioners in early years settings have a complex and demanding role which entails many different responsibilities, the undertaking of many different tasks and the need to be many different ‘selves’. In a typical day an early years practitioner may comfort a crying infant, listen to a child talking about their weekend, make pretend cups of tea in the home corner, observe a child’s use of the outdoor area, help a child collect resources to make a den, assess a child’s communication skills or complete a child’s record of progress. In experiencing these different responsibilities and activities the practitioner will have been a different ‘self’ or a combination of different ‘selves’ depending on what the responsibility or activity entailed.  In this sense we are many different selves – we are ‘plural practitioners’.

The Plural Practitioner – the seven selves

The plural practitioner is a notion that has been applied to reflect the different ‘selves’ that make up the adult role.  It thus recognises the multiple perspectives of the self in early years practitioners’ work with young children.  The most helpful way to envisage the ‘plural practitioner’ concept is to relate the seven selves to the seven colours of the rainbow.  Although rainbows are actually a continuous spectrum of colours rather than a discrete set, seven colours are distinctive enough to have been commonly named.  This article outlines the seven distinctive dimensions of the adult role and how these manifest in daily interactions between adult and children during adult-initiated and child-initiated activities.  The seven selves that constitute the plural practitioner have particular characteristics and encompass particular forms of behaviour but, like rainbow colours, each characteristic or self blends into and helps to create the next.  The seven different dimensions are therefore presented as integrated and interactive and comprise the following:  The Critical Reflector, the Carer, the Communicator, the Facilitator, the Observer, the Assessor and the Creator (see Fig. 1).


Fig. 1

So what does each of these ‘selves’ entail and how do they manifest in our daily interactions with young children?  The rest of this article and the one that follows outlines the key attributes of each ‘self’ and some key strategies that can be adopted in order to ensure quality provision.  The first two ‘selves’ are explored here and the remaining 5 are considered in the second part.

The Critical Reflector in adult-initiated and child-initiated activities

The Critical Reflector self highlights the importance of creating critical reflective practice and permeates all of the seven selves of the adult role.  Our values, beliefs, attitudes, knowledge and assumptions about young children directly affect the provision we seek to create and the nature of our interactions with children. If we are to ensure what we do is effective, it may be necessary to challenge existing assumptions and expectations about our values, practice and constructions of the child.  We can do this, for example, by systematically examining our thinking and actions through research on our practice, by articulating our implicit belief system, by carefully examining any pre-judgements made of children's aptitudes and by investigating the nature of our interactions.  If we do this, we are more likely to develop a pedagogic role that is finely tuned in to children's needs and interests and encompasses more proactive expectations of children's learning potential.  As Critical Reflectors, we can ensure that provision is child-constructed rather than simply adult-imposed and that the curriculum is child-centred where active learning, participation and 'finding out' are emphasised as much as 'being told’, where the processes are as important as the products. Being a Critical Reflector will help us to know when to innovate and when to sustain existing practice, when to initiate an activity and when to be led by the child.  We will recognise the uncertainty and ambiguity of the learning context but in the day to day interactions with young children, being a Critical Reflector, will help us to reflect ‘in’ and ‘on’ our interactions and activities to ensure they are child-centred and socially just.

As a Critical Reflector we should see ourselves as part of a  ‘learning community’ in the sense that the participants in an early years settings are lifelong learners and endeavour to share ideas and investigate their practice collaboratively, learning from and with each other.  We need to develop communities of practitioners who contribute to a learning organisation and the establishment of evidence informed practice through a research ‘mindset’ and an ongoing evaluation of provision.  By investigating our own practice within a learning community of practice, the Critical Reflector can be empowered to engender more worthwhile provision for all the children in their care. Being a Critical Reflector also helps to ensure that our Carer role is implicit in all that we do.

The Carer in adult-initiated and child-initiated activities

The Carer self lies at the heart of the adult role and fundamentally underpins all early years practice.  It is framed within a perspective of an ‘ethic of care’ and a ‘moral act’ which promotes an inclusive approach and ensures young children are given an essential nurturing environment to support their learning and development.  A nurturing relationship is attentive, responsive and gives thoughtful consideration to those who are cared-for, providing the basis for life-long caring attitudes.   We can establish nurturing relationships through ‘interactional synchrony’ and ‘emotion coaching’ which help the Carer self to tune into the child’s needs and interests.  These two forms of interaction are offered as the primary vehicles through which to foster empathetic behavior, engender emotional intelligence and enhance resilience in young children.  Interactional synchrony was originally used to describe the way in which caregivers and infants appeared to imitate each other’s movements, such as facial expressions or speech patterns, during interactions so that they appeared to be ‘in sync’.  Here we consider it more broadly to refer to the interpersonal relationship between practitioner and child in which the Carer sensitively tunes into the cared-for child in a responsive way which is ‘in sync’ with the child’s needs and interests.   It is a reciprocal and rewarding process for each partner which helps to develop rapport but most importantly helps the child to feel socially connected and develop a sense of belonging.  Being ‘in sync’ will help to determine the nature of adult involvement and the degree of direction required.

The other effective strategy is emotion coaching which emphasises the process of emotional regulation.  It is essentially comprised of two key elements - empathy and guidance.  These two elements express themselves through various processes which caregivers undertake whenever ‘emotional moments’ occur and involves initially recognizing, labeling and validating the young child’s emotions in order to promote self-awareness and understanding of emotions.  By providing a narrative for the child whilst they are experiencing an emotion, important connections are made to the more rationale parts of our brain which helps children to moderate their behaviour even when their wishes are thwarted.  The circumstances might also require setting limits on appropriate behaviour (such as stating clearly what is acceptable behavior) and possible consequential action (such as implementing behavior management procedures) - but key to this process is engagement with the child in problem-solving, i.e. discussing alternative ways of behaving when the child is in a calm state, in order to support the child’s ability to learn to self-regulate. In this way, the child and adult work together to seek alternative courses of action to help manage emotions and prevent future transgressions.  Research shows that children who are emotion-coached are better emotionally regulated, more competent problem-solvers, have higher self-esteem, achieve more academic success and have more positive peer relationships.  Through emotion coaching and intersubjectivity, the attributes and actions of the Carer self can be applied to all interactions and activities with young children as can our role as Communicators – this dimension of the adult role is explored in part 2, available in July 2013.

Janet Rose and her co-author Sue Rogers have written The Role of the Adult in Early Years Settings, published by Open University Press:

janet-rose-book.png“This book offers a unique and critical approach to the theme of adults working in early years settings through a focus on seven key dimensions encompassed in the term 'the plural practitioner'. The discussion is strongly underpinned by a consideration of the two important principles of child centredness and social justice. The authors also draw on multiple perspectives, including the role of neuroscience and socio cultural perspectives, to consider who these early years professional are and the complexity of what they bring to their work.”
Linda Miller, Professor Emeritus, Early Years, The Open University, UK

Janet Rose
Janet is the Award Leader for the Early Education Award within the Education Studies degree and the Award Leader for the Early Childhood Studies MA degree. She specialises in early childhood education with a particular interest in the adult role and has recently co-authored a book on this subject. She has undertaken research in a number of areas of early years education including working closely with early years practitioners to improve the quality of their practice, particularly in the area of supporting children's early literacy. Her most recent research interests mainly focus on children's emotional development.

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