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Thinking Approaches for the Reflective Professional



Reflective practice has become a much embedded mantra in the early years when focusing on the quality of practitioners and provision. Finlay (2008) best describes the process of reflective practice as ‘recapturing practice experiences and mulling them over critically, in order to gain new understandings and so to improve future practice’(p.1). Being able to do this is described as the ‘core competence’ (Urban et al, 2011) that is required of early childhood professionals. To quote one practitioner “I know reflection is important and I must do it as it will make what I do for the children better, but it’s finding the time that is an issue, but also how to go about it!”. Many professionals are in the same position as busy days in settings and the demanding roles we play contribute to not having the time to reflect. There is also the How do I do it? When do I do it? and Where do I do it? that constantly nags us. Due to various issues, reflection ends up being applied ‘blandly, mechanically and in unthinking ways’ (Finlay, 2008, p.1). The challenge then becomes finding ways to build reflective practice into our busy routines. So where do we start?

Opportunities for reflection

The starting point is to understand what opportunities for reflection arise from various situations in practice. This enables us to create a logical pathway to categorise practice situations and experiences into groups for better reflection. I categorise opportunities for reflection into three groups:

  1. An aspect of practice that did not work well – reflection here will help to consider what might be done differently in the future.
  2. An aspect of practice that has exceeded expectations; worked well - in order to identify what worked well and what we can continue to do or build on.
  3. Reflect on a question or questions in order to challenge our thinking - in order to consider different perspectives, and examine underlying beliefs, attitudes and values that guide our thoughts and actions, and in turn our practice. Examples of such questions maybe:

Social context. What are our circumstances?

Values and identity. Who are we?

Relationships. How are we getting on together?

Learning. How can we understand children's learning and development?

Curriculum. How do we develop children’s knowledge and understanding through the characteristics of learning?

Planning. How are we implementing the EYFS curriculum?

Organisation. How are we managing the environment?

Behaviour. How are we promoting positive social and emotional behaviour?

Communication. What are its characteristics?

Teaching. How are we developing our strategies?

Assessment. How are we monitoring children’s learning, talents and achievements?

Inclusion. How are we achieving this?


Once you establish the differing opportunities for reflection, reflective practice is then about the thinking. Thinking is the beginnings, and the very core, of reflective practice, and it is this that needs to be done well in order to enhance quality for young children. Very often our brain is crammed and congested with all sorts of information and we do not think as well as we can. Therefore being a reflective professional really starts with adopting a ‘thinking approach’ to practice.

Thinking approaches

Thinking approaches are the most straightforward strategies to help us think about practice. The key is to find or devise a thinking approach that suits you, which when done well and effectively can be a powerful tool to examine and transform early years practice. I share a few simple thinking approaches here in order to get you started on the journey of reflective practice.

Who Am I?

A simple thinking approach that I use with professionals is asking them to identify an item which they feel they are most like as a practitioner. An item can be an animal, object, material etc. Here you immediately see the frowns appear on the foreheads, the tapping on the tables as the frown gets deeper, silence where you can almost hear a pin drop, and then the gaze into the unknown, which is when you know it is happening........yes the thinking! Some of the items described as a result of practitioner’s thinking are fascinating and shared below:

  • I am a scale! I am always trying to balance time to get everything done. There is sometimes so much to do in my setting that it’s about finding that balance.
  • I am a sponge! I am always seeking knowledge, reading and absorbing good practice to make my practice better. However sometimes I get soggy due to overload and the busy environment!
  • I am a slinky! I am flexible and keep going really fast with lots of ideas, however I am so fast at times that other practitioners can’t keep up!
  • I am a beaver! Always busy doing everything, however once I get in there, it has to be finished, I follow it through to the end!
  • I am a treasure basket! I hold various knowledge and skill bases about practice with children, and all my colleagues come to me where I share them out.
  • I am a binocular! I am always trying to keep an eye on everything around me and what happens in all parts of my setting. I zone in on everything!

By having this reflective thinking conversation with themselves, professionals create a pathway for further discussions and interrogate how they perceive themselves in their roles within their settings.  Through their self-awareness, they think about what they do and with assistance from others in the group (sustained shared thinking!) they are able to re-consider their practice and think about refining or changing aspects of how they approach their role. O’Conner and Diggins (2002, p9) best describes this process as taking the time to “stop, think and change”.


In 1993 David Tripp published his much acclaimed book titled Critical Incidents in Teaching. The book concentrated on advising teachers in schools in how to view incidents, good or bad, and through critical thinking address them. His work, used mostly in PGCE teaching, is quite high order thinking and one can easily loose their way in tackling it. Through my various roles in the early years I have used some strategies (watered down) to help professionals think about thinking and ultimately route the beginnings of reflection. I share two thinking approaches with you here.

Plus, minus and interesting

This thinking approach allows you to look at an aspect of practice and focus on the good (plus), the bad (minus) and the in­­-between which is neither good or bad but just appears relevant to the situation (interesting)­­­­­. An example of this follows:

Four year old Ayyan was in the outdoor area and on the climbing frame. A practitioner was deployed at this station. On the frame was a rope which could be used to climb on and off the frame. However Ayyan decided to climb off through the bridge which was also panelled off by ropes. He climbed through the square and was dangling from his arms as he held the ropes, with his feet about 4 inches off the ground. Immediately another practitioner from across the outdoor area shouted and ran towards him, startling him and saying “you are not to do this, you will hurt your arms”. Ayyan started to cry and hid his eyes by pulling his hat down.

Plus:                    The child was exploring and taking risks in what seemed to be a safe environment.

Minus:                 The practitioner shouting like this caused the child to cry and be embarrassed (covering of face with hat)

Interesting:         The other practitioner deployed at the climbing frame was encouraging the child’s risk  taking and did not seem to think it an issue.

To start with, by clarifying what we both like and dislike about an aspect of practice is a good way of evaluating it, but also focuses on how we relate to it. This is because our own feelings can overshadow our professional judgement in analysing any aspect of practice. For example, the distress of the child could easily upset us and make us believe that the practitioner is insensitive. These feelings need to be addressed by being self-aware and critically evaluating our own response to practice situations, because it may well be that the practitioner was genuinely scared the child may hurt themselves.

Once a response is provided for each heading, they then require further exploration through the thinking approach.

Plus: Was it risk taking in a safe environment? Were the ropes safe to climb and dangle through? Does a risk assessment need to be conducted?

Minus: Does the practitioner need speaking to about communicating sensitively with children at a level they understand? Or if it was genuinely her fear for the worse of what could happen, then how can we cause as little distress as possible to the children, but at the same time promote and demonstrate safe behaviour?

Interesting: Both practitioners seem to have differing responses to risk taking so therefore does an in-house training session need to be delivered to the team? Or literature about risk taking made available?

What is obvious here is that these further questions that arise from further thinking can not be answered as an isolated process and requires sustained shared thinking with other colleagues. Fowler and Robins (2006) support this by stating that reflection in the early years not only requires our own thoughts and ideas, but also the thoughts and ideas of colleagues, the thoughts and ideas of children, and the thoughts and ideas of parents. Reflection also requires the views and knowledge gained from experience and literature. As a result of this thinking approach, many aspects of practice can be explored and changed.

The Why? Challenge

This thinking approach is about asking Why? And to go on asking it about any practice situation. The idea is for underlying situations to come to the forefront that we may have forgotten or not thought of. Constantly asking why interrogates what we do for the children and why we do it. I sometimes ask ‘how?’ as I go through this thinking approach as this suits my thinking.

Candy provided the children in the young children age group with teapots and tea cups. She enhanced the provision by also providing real tea bags and water. A group of four children were engaged with soaking teabags and pretending to drink tea. Candy joined in and provided opportunities for children to smell the tea and look at the colour as the water became darker and darker as the teabags soaked. The children then started going to the sink area and filling their tea pots up further and bringing it back. As the tea bags tore, the leaves spread out onto the tray and one of the children soaked her hands to feel the leaves. Candy asked the children about the textures of the leaves and then encouraged them to find patterns being formed as a result of the tea leaves.

The children were engaged throughout this activity


Because they were freely exploring water and teabags


Because it was a sensory experience for children to initiate their own play and learning.


Because it is better to tune into children’s interests and their ideas through the activities


Because this makes for the best learning experience and is what child initiated play is about.


Because practitioners can develop personalised learning through children’s ideas and interests and take them forward through discussion and sustained shared thinking.


Because this is how it is and how it ought to be!

Here reflective thinking of this practice snippet allows us to understand that the best learning experiences for children are through following their ideas and interests as they unfold in their own initiated play. Thinking helps us to acknowledge that this practice needs to be maintained, the next step is to strategise to build on it. The Why challenge can be taken several times with a different statement or question to start it off, for example:

Candy really engaged the children in this activity


Because she provided resources that interested the children and moved them forward in what they were saying and doing


Because she is knowledgeable in child development and experienced in tuning into what children say and do


It’s in what she did, said and discussed with the children and the language she introduced.

Why does this matter?

Because it’s about communicating effectively with children and listening and responding to what they say and do.


Because it is about establishing a stimulating learning environment where children are able to feel confident and are able to learn and develop through the adult they come into contact with.


Because this is how it is and how it ought to be!

Here the good practice demonstrated by Candy comes into light and as a result of this thinking, and in order to retain what makes an effective practitioner, peer observations could be put in place, where Candy is observed by other practitioners to learn from, or alternatively, Candy supports and mentors others in their work with children. What is also confirmed through the thinking approach is that a learning environment with rich resources is only stimulating with the presence of an effective adult who scaffolds children through their interactions.

Final thought

Our aim as professionals is to achieve better outcomes for children, families and the community. We want to provide effective learning experiences for the children in our care, and strive for continuous quality improvement, but also want to ensure personal and professional development. With this shared understanding and vision of the early years, reflection, through adopting thinking approaches, is the tool that supports us to achieve this. As stated quite early on, the challenge is to build reflective practice into our busy routines, this is something that is individual to each professional as it is linked to the context you work in. I have introduced some thinking approaches for you to start on the process, but cannot dictate how you embed it into your working practices; this is the challenge for you to overcome. Once you do, your effective practice will be evident in the children you come into contact with.

The thinking approaches can be used in staff meetings or team building exercises too!


Finlay, L (2008) Reflecting on ‘Reflective Practice’. A discussion paper prepared for PBPL CETL (www.open.ac.uk/pbpl ) Paper 52.

Fowler, K and Robins, A. (2006) Being Reflective: encouraging and teaching reflective practice in Robins, A (ed) Mentoring in the Early Years. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

O’Connor, A. & Diggins, C. (2002) On Reflection: Reflective Practice for Early Childhood Educators. New Zealand: Open Mind Publishing.

Tripp, D. (1993) Critical Incidents in Teaching. Oxhon: Routledge.

Urban, M., Vandenbroeck, M., Peeters, J., Lazzari, A., and Van Laere, K. (2011) CoRe. Competence requirements in Early Childhood Education and Care. Research documents commissioned by the European Commission, DG Education and Culture. Online. Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/education/more-information/doc/2011/core_en.pdf

Ruksana Mohammed
Ruksana has developed and leads the current Early Years ITT provision at the University of East London. Prior to this, Ruksana led on the Early Years Professional Status (EYPS) and lectured on the BA Hons and Masters in Early Childhood studies. Ruksana is an experienced early years practitioner and manager, and has over 15 years of experience and expertise of working in the field of early years, including the setting up of early years environments and developing practitioners. Her experience and work include developing management and staff practice in working with children, creation and delivery of early years curriculum for children, staff management, building links with parents and working closely with external agencies such as OfSTED, Sure Start, local authorities, schools and FE colleges.
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