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The Role of the Adult in Early Years Settings: Part 2

Part 2 continues the journey of exploring our role in supporting young children’s learning and development.  It outlines the five remaining ‘selves’ of the ‘plural practitioner’ framework that encompass this role.  The ‘plural practitioner’ framework is offered as a useful vehicle for enabling us to clarify our role in the day to day interactions with children that occur throughout our practice.  It offers a way forward in helping us to minimize any uncertainty about whether ‘to intervene’ or ‘not to intervene’ in children’s play.  It is suggested that we envisage all activities as child-initiated and adult-initiated, rather than as child-led or adult-directed.  In this way, we can view all our exchanges with children as being a reciprocal ‘dance of co-construction’ regardless of who initiates the activity and the agenda that drives it.  The remaining ‘selves’ of the plural practitioner that are considered in Part 2 are the Communicator, the Observer, the Assessor and the Creator.

The Communicator in adult-initiated and child-initiated activities

The Communicator self ensures we provide the most effective ways of communicating meaning and developing understanding with children.  It drives our role and embraces the understanding that communication and social interaction are intrinsic to learning and development. It draws attention to the ‘communicative act’ – the exchange of meaning between two people.  The communicative act comprises many different elements, both verbal and non-verbal, which form the interdependent parts of communicative behavior. The key strategies that enable us to connect effectively to children are ‘attunement’ and ‘intersubjectivity’Attunement is essentially about creating a harmonious and responsive relationship. It involves being fully aware of the child in every way in the moment and adapting our interactions to suit the child’s receptivity to them.  In other words, ‘tuning in’ to the child and altering our responses to suit the particular child’s developmental and personal needs and interests.  Tuning into a child requires sensitive interpretation of the child and context and an empathetic attitude to help improve the quality of the communicative exchange.  It bears many of the hallmarks of ‘interactional synchrony’ and is thus as much about co-regulation as building rapport.

Intersubjectivity is closely related to attunement (as well as interactional synchrony) and is essentially concerned with developing and co-creating shared understanding. The process of intersubjectivity is about tuning in, sharing experiences and promoting understanding – it provides a bridge from self to other in order to connect meaning. This process can entail non-verbal communication or ‘paralinguistics’.  Paralinguistics include facial expression, posture, gestures, use of social and personal space and are often used as either a substitute, support or complement to our verbal communication.  We also need to recognize the power of the ‘pragmatics’ of communication which refers to the sociocultural rules of engaging in effective communication.  These involve key skills such as turn taking, pitch, volume and tone which all provide important contextual clues in the communicative exchange. But perhaps most importantly of all, intersubjectivity incorporates the need to ‘listen’.  If we are sentient about the need to tune into the child and promote intersubjectivity, then the nature and direction of our responses to the child should emerge naturally. If we are alert to the many elements of the communicative act, consciously monitor our use of body language or tone of voice, this should enhance the quality of our communicative exchanges.  At the same time, the very act of communicating with the child will help to inform choices and decisions about whether to initiate activities and when opportune moments for sustained shared thinking might occur.  As a Communicator, we can be vigilant in listening to the child’s ‘voice’ in all forms, all the while bearing in mind the possibilities of enhancing the child’s development sensitively and collaboratively as Facilitators of children’s learning, which leads us to the next ‘self’.

The Facilitator in adult-initiated and child-initiated activities

The Facilitator embraces a central notion proposed by this article - that rather than thinking  in terms of adults directing children’s learning,  activities in early years settings may be initiated either by the adult or by the children but then can become a shared endeavour - a process of co-construction and negotiation within a reciprocal and responsive relationship.  As a Facilitator we are particularly concerned with empowering young children, promoting their autonomy, imagination, decision-making and problem-solving capacities – it is in this aspect of our role that we can work within our statutory obligations to promote the characteristics of effective learning – as children actively play and explore, we can enhance their creative and critical thinking. The Facilitator self is thus envisaged in terms of enabling, engaging and mediating.  It emphasises the reciprocal and responsive relationship between adult and child in easing children’s progress.  In particular, it interrogates our role in terms of promoting children’s autonomy and decision-making – all hallmarks of child-centred practices.  At the same time it explores the adult role in scaffolding and supporting learning and development, helping children to create connections and make sense of the world.

The key strategy within the Facilitator self is therefore ‘sustained shared thinking’.  Sustained shared thinking has been defined as an episode in which two or more individuals 'work together' in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, and evaluate activities. This dialogic approach enables us to draw on a range of strategies and skills to facilitate young children’s learning and development during their everyday activities, such as sensitively tuning into children, being alert to finding the ‘right moment’ to interact and considering what kind of interaction might be appropriate - modeling, commenting, clarifying an idea, asking open questions, encouraging further thinking by speculating or offering alternatives and/or making suggestions.  Facilitating young children’s learning therefore requires high level interactive skills on the part of the adult which adapt readily to the specific context or activity.  Such an approach will of course include creating adult-initiated opportunities for extending children’s thinking and  learning, but always with the intention of empowering young children to be active agents with the Facilitator acting as a ‘guide by their side’. But perhaps being a Facilitator first involves being an Observer.

The Observer in adult-initiated and child-initiated activities

The Observer self forms part of the Observation, Assessment, Planning (OAP) cycle of early years practice, and establishes its meaning and purpose. The term ‘observe’ literally means to ‘see and notice’ or to ‘watch carefully’ and observation involves getting close to children’s minds and feelings. As an Observer, we pay particular attention to the process of how children make sense of their world.  Observing children can enable us to be alert to the child’s needs, interests and achievements and in doing so, we can use this information to guide our interactions ‘in the moment’ as well as to create further possibilities as we feed this information into the setting’s OAP system or provision.  The informal, spontaneous observations ‘in situ’ help to ascertain whether formal, pre-planned observations are necessary but the Observer will also be alert to opportunities for children to participate in observational activities to ensure that their perspectives are included and ‘significant moments’ captured. Such significant moments will include signs of emerging literacy and numeracy exhibited in children’s symbolic behaviour and manifested in a range of multi-modal artefacts created by the children during both adult and child initiated activities.  Taking a holistic perspective, one that encompasses personal, social and emotional dimensions in the ‘significant moments’, we can tune into children’s multi-modal expressions of meaning making and find out about their friendships, how their identity is being constructed, what motivates and preoccupies them.  Observation, then,  is not only about noting the manifestations of children’s internal representational or cognitive processes, it is also about understanding that learning is about social participation and occurs through mediated action and reciprocal relationships within specific cultural and historical contexts. Moreover, decisions made about ‘significant moments’ is essentially a process of interpretation and professional judgement and merges the Observer into the Assessor dimension of the adult role.

The Assessor in adult-initiated and child-initiated activities

The Assessor self clarifies the process of analysing observations and how these relate to more formalised assessment frameworks such as the Foundation Stage Profile.  It draws attention to how our analysis of children’s progress is affected by how we view children and acknowledges the various influences that affect children’s learning and development.  It also explores the power dimensions of assessment and their implications for issues related to social justice.  It also considers the possibilities of supporting children’s self-evaluation of their learning reflecting a child-centred mode of assessment. Like observations, assessment should be embedded in practice and woven into the fabric of classroom activity and interaction.  The Assessor will be cognizant of the many dimensions to the assessment process including how our interpretation is shaped by the interconnected web of influences on the child, our own image of the child and the various responsibilities we have for evaluating children’s progress.  In doing so, we can seek opportunities for generating more empowering ways of assessing children which will encourage children’s participation in initiating their own activities.  As Assessors we recognise the particular value of formative assessment in situ since this will shape our interactions and what we initiate in the moment.  At the same time, such assessments will help to define the opportunities we can create for extending young children’s development in our role as a Creator.

The Creator in adult-initiated and child-initiated activities

The last part of the OAP cycle is envisaged as the Creator self.  This term has been deliberately chosen in place of the term ‘planner’ in order to emphasise the creative dimensions of the adult role and the need to create a contextually and developmentally appropriate learning environment for young children, rather than merely ‘plan’.  The Creator self is aware of the planned, received and hidden curriculum that young children will encounter as well as the importance of creating multi-sensory, embedded, imaginative and explorative experiences that cater for diverse needs and interests. As a Creator, we can create provision that gives children real choices about where, with whom, what and how they play. We can create spaces both indoors and outdoors that allow for uninterrupted time to play, to revisit, rebuild and recreate ideas.  We can engage with all the dimensions of our adult role to show children that we are interested in their play and are advocates for their play.  We can consult and negotiate with children as co-constructors of the curriculum and pedagogy which stimulates and supports their play. Through observation, verbal and non verbal feedback we act as knowledgeable observers, assessors, carers, communicators and facilitators which may provoke them to initiate activities with the children or simply help to create provision that empowers all children to self-initiate in an enabling environment.


There are many other aspects to the adult role that are not explored here – for example, the ‘selves’ that manifest in our relationships with parents, colleagues and multi-agency staff, our ‘manager’ and ‘leader’ selves and even the ‘Ofsted’ self!  But the heart of our practice lies in our interactions with the children and recognising the collective ways in which we operate in our minute-to-minute exchanges and as well as in our overall practice can help us to be more conscious of both what and why we do what we do.

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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