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SSTEW Scale (Sustained Shared Thinking and Emotional Well-being) - in practice

At this year’s NDNA conference Denise Kingston, co-writer of the SSTEW scale, led a session to explain the scale, how it can be used and how it can positively impact on practice. The scale can be used to assess the quality of interactions between adults and children in early childhood education and care. It builds further on the ITERS and ECERS (Environment Rating Scales). The SSTEW scales are used to observe and evaluate adult-child interactions alongside the planning and organisation of learning spaces. This method enables the observer to consider the impact of the adult role. Whereas, with ITERS and ECERS the focus is solely on the environment offered to children. SSTEW also encourages consideration of how we plan to ensure meaningful learning takes place. A key focus of the SSTEW scale is the acknowledgement of the importance of the practitioner’s role within early education. It demands that we focus on the valuable work adults can do scaffolding children’s learning when reviewing how well children are progressing. The SSTEW scale is already being used effectively within studies in settings in Australia and New Zealand.

About the SSTEW Scale

The scale comprises five sub-scales that link to aspects of development and have 14 subheadings, called items. These items are:

1 Building trust, confidence and independence

Item 1 Self-regulation and social development

Item 2 Encouraging choices and independent play

Item 3 Planning for small group and individual interactions/adult deployment

2 Social and emotional well-being

Item 4 Supporting socio-emotional well-being

3 Supporting and extending language and communication

Item 5 Encouraging children to talk with others

Item 6 Staff actively listen to children and encourage children to listen

Item 7 Staff support children’s language use

Item 8 Sensitive responsiveness

4 Supporting learning and critical thinking

Item 9 Supporting curiosity and problem-solving

Item 10 Encouraging sustained shared thinking through storytelling, sharing books, signing and rhymes

Item 11 Encouraging sustained shared thinking in investigation and exploration

Item 12 Supporting concept development and higher-order thinking

5 Assessing language and learning

Item 13 Using assessment to support and extend learning and critical thinking

Item 14 Assessing language development


Within each item of the scale there are examples of what we could be seeing. For example, we are encouraged to consider 'how is the practitioner interacting?' are they 'extending the child’s knowledge and understanding?' and 'are open questions being used?'

The SSTEW Scale could be used to focus on one of the ‘Items’ and then you would observe the effectiveness of practitioners in extending a certain area of a child’s understanding. By using the ‘Items’ you could then support the practitioner to participate in further training to develop their practice if necessary.

When completing peer observations, I feel the SSTEW Scales would be helpful in identifying for practioners what observers are seeing. Thereby creating a common understanding and helping us to support improvements through staff training and discussions. The SSTEW Scale could be used in this way to ensure consistent messages are shared between staff. Practitioners could then learn and develop their own practice through observing others using the SSTEW Scale. Observing other practitioners’ good practice and being able to identify ways forward is a skill that practitioners develop over time, using the scale could support them to understand the impact of the adult role and to ensure they are promoting positive interactions in their own work with children.


So, after the research, attending the conference and reading the book, it was time for me to give it a go!

The first part of the necessary preparation was for me to photocopy pages 40-47 of the SSTEW book. The photocopiable resource section of the book is vital in ensuring you have enough copies to complete each observation. It also allows you to keep your original copy neat and scribble free! Once ready with the resources I planned times in my 2 year old room and also in the pre-school room. I wanted to ensure I was observing in each room for a full session to ensure I was observing practice throughout different activities, meal times and freeflow play. I took the original SSTEW Scale book with me to complete the observations so that I could read the sub scales as I observed practice. I would recommend using the book as you observe as until you have used the book numerous times it is hard to remember each sub scale. When I started, I did not begin at number 1 and work my way through, although you may choose to do so. I found it more beneficial to sit back, observe and then read the sub scales to see which ‘sub scale’ what I was seeing would fit to. Although at first I felt as though I was flicking backwards and forwards between the sub scales I was soon able to settle into the observation and understand which sub scale was relevant. It took me 3 hours (split over 2 days) to complete each of my observations. In this time, I observed practice and ‘scored’ every sub scale for each group.

There were some aspects that I feel, as the nursery manager, I need to revisit. For example, to see ‘excellent’ practice within sub scale 1 (Building trust, confidence and independence) I will be going back and observing further to consider whether activities are extended and concepts challenged in a free play situation. This would follow on from my observation of the activities being implemented through adult-led sessions. As well as using the sub scales to observe practice, on some occasions I used the examples and supplementary information to ask staff questions. This is so I could ensure, for example, that all staff were understanding how and why we use planning (sub scale 4). To fully assess sub scale 5 (Assessing language and learning), I used existing observations that had been completed by staff. As part of my routine practice I check all staff observations before they go ‘live’ on our online journal system Tapestry. However, with SSTEW in mind I focused on certain areas and took account of how the observations had been written and which area of learning they had been referenced to. I found the scale easy to use and felt I was gaining valuable observations of my staff throughout the process.

Once I had completed the observations I could identify areas of good practice and feed them back to my team individually as I would with peer observations. Although for peer observations, I would feedback my own thoughts and notes of what I had seen, with the SSTEW scale I could share the scales of the book as I discussed each observation. The areas of practice for focus/improvement were identified and in a reflective manner, I sat with my staff and made plans for how they could improve and how and what they felt they needed to support this improvement.

The common area for improvement was to ensure that everyone was extending activities that have worked well. To encourage the development of the children’s knowledge and understanding it is vital to extend activities. The feedback I received when reflecting on this with staff was that the children, at times, lose interest in an activity before staff have had the chance to extend it further. In this instance, we discussed what could be put in place to ensure activities are being extended. We discussed that you do not have to wait until the next planned session to extend an activity if the children are ‘getting it’ and are keen to move on. It may be that only 10 minutes into an activity the children have grasped concepts and are starting to become bored. In this case the staff members should have planned/organised/discussed the extension previously, so that it can be implemented in a timely manner. Staff agreed that this was a good way forward and will be implementing this from now during each adult led activity. This is not something that was happening every time as I observed extensions of activities taking place. What this did highlight to me was individual staff that needed prompting and supporting further. All staff were keen for feedback and were able to discuss with me their thoughts. Most of them thought that the observations were a positive way to ensure they were working effectively as a team and that they were supporting and scaffolding children in a consistent way. After every observation, I feed back to each of my staff. Using the SSTEW Scale with the staff member during feedback allowed them to see what I had been looking for and we were then able to discuss the areas that I did not see and possible examples of what I would hope to see next time.

Overall, I would recommend using the scale. I feel it gave me a different way to complete peer observations that I will use again. I am planning to use the SSTEW Scale every term as well as continuing with some of the shorter peer observations I already complete. The peer observations I complete are in a format that looks at either staff interactions, or the use of the environment, or how well the staff have planned for each child and or the language that is used by staff. I tend to focus on just one area at a time so that I am not giving my staff too many areas of focus, either for improvement or areas to celebrate.

My overall findings will be discussed as a group at our staff meeting. From that we will be able to share ideas, ways forward and to confirm we are all follow practice in the same way. I will not use examples giving individual names as we need to focus on working as team and how each member has responsibility for our positive interactions. For areas of improvement I will be setting time scales in which I can support my staff to improve, I will then complete another SSTEW observation to ensure best practice is being achieved.


Vicki Smith
Vicki is the manager of a large day nursery and has previously been an early years advisor for a large Local Authority.
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