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Developing Sustained Shared Thinking to enhance the Specific areas of learning and development


Sustained Shared Thinking has been defined and shown, through research, to be an effective strategy used in quality settings (Sylva et al. 2004). In this article I examine how Sustained Shared Thinking can be used to enhance the four areas of learning and development in the EYFS known as the Specific Areas: Mathematics, Expressive Arts and Design, Literacy and Understanding the World.


Mathematics is often thought about as simply numbers (or numeracy) but it also requires an understanding of some abstract concepts, such as time and money. It encompasses a wide range of diverse ideas such as capacity, patterns, positioning, size and weight. Sustained Shared Thinking can enhance this enormous area of learning and development by encouraging children to think about the concepts, problem solve and discuss this with others. This is far preferable to learning ‘by rote’ because the knowledge is then transferable. For example, understanding that you can see the two times table in repeat patterns, such as adding two more cubes or adding two more plates or adding two more stripes.

It can sometimes be difficult to unravel the way that children’s mathematical thinking is being formed. For example, some children can name shapes on a shape sorter, but struggle to find shapes in the environment. This could be for any number of reasons, which can be better understood through exploring the concepts during a sustained dialogue. It may be that your child believes that only that one, drawn shape on the paper is a ‘square’, which is non-transferable to anything else. Or possibly that ‘square’ is only 2 dimensional, so a 3 dimensional window can’t be ‘square’. By encouraging children to discuss their ideas and thoughts about this, you can begin to see their logic and understanding about shapes.

We use mathematical language very loosely sometimes. For example, if you ask your child to “wait a minute”, is it always a ‘minute’? Think about the confusion around the word ‘more’ – one more pencil is a whole new pencil, but more juice is the same cup with extra liquid. The extended conversations of sustained shared thinking give you an opportunity to explore the verbal intricacies of mathematical language with your children.

Expressive Arts and Design

There are many opportunities for sustained shared thinking to support expressive arts and design. For babies, this could be jointly experiencing and encouraging them to feel paints, play dough, textured paper and fabrics. Although unable to speak, you can have a sustained exchange with babies, using facial expressions and encouraging language. As a practitioner, you can learn about what your baby enjoys and your baby has valuable experiential learning.

Toddlers and older children who enjoy music, role-play, making up games with rules and singing will generally enjoy discussing these with interested adults. These can be sustained conversations that may be returned to many days or even weeks later. Capturing their expressive arts and designs as photos or videos can bring back memories and re-ignite these conversations.  As a practitioner, you can encourage children to explore different possibilities in their imaginative play, for example, different endings to stories or ways to extend songs.

Older children are often keen to discuss, describe and explain their creative activities, including 3D models, drama, art and dance moves. These are golden opportunities to practice your positive questioning techniques, in order to extend children’s thinking.


Sharing books with young children, right from being a baby, is an excellent way of enjoying a joint experience. Children experience books in different ways as they grow up. Babies start by noticing the colours and shapes. You can encourage this as a sustained shared thinking encounter by encouraging your baby to notice the colours, shapes and text. For many babies this will result in a sustained interest, returning to their favourite book, or part of the book later.

For older children the repetition of the words, the content of the text as well as the illustrations are all opportunities for sustained shared thinking. For example, encouraging children to think of alternative endings or to describe how a character might be feeling are good opportunities to co-construct knowledge and problem solve as well. You may even find children doing this for themselves in their play afterwards. The repetition of the words can be good for exploring language and thinking about how words may alliterate or rhyme.

Some children may be able to construct their own stories, which can be complex, with a vast range of characters. This is and exciting place to start sustained shared thinking, as the children are leading the knowledge construction, and have to engage in in-depth conversations to explain their thinking. Often, as a practitioner, your role is to simply be an active and available listener. These are occasions when you may learn more from your children and how they perceive the world.

Understanding the World

This is a very broad area of learning and development, incorporating ideas such as community and the world. These are often areas of interest for children, who generally enjoy telling interested adults all about their life experiences, things they have seen and places they have visited. You can support this with sustained shared thinking, by having an understanding of your children’s background. This will help you to start relevant conversations that are likely to be of significance to the children. These can also be ideal opportunities for sustained shared thinking between children, as they compare and contrast their experiences.

Understanding the world also incorporates the tricky area of technology, ICT and computers. There has already been plenty written about the benefits and pitfalls of modern technological devices. On the one hand, computers and phones are becoming easier and easier to use. This means that younger and younger children are able to access the technology. For example, there are plenty of youtube clips of young children using ipads, but I like this one, because the little girl has clearly worked out that each letter ‘locks’ into place when it is right:

However, the downside is that modern technology tends to isolate the user, trapping them in a bubble of non-verbal communication (both adults and children). This is an unhelpful environment for sustained shared thinking, as communication (both verbal and non-verbal) and shared understanding are key requirements. If the content on the screen prompts questions or discussion from your children, then it can be much more beneficial for starting sustained shared thinking.


As a practitioner, you may have to explore children’s interests and experiences in a bit more depth in order to engage in sustained shared thinking in the specific areas. This will include discovering children’s interests and fascinations in all the different areas, such as understanding the world and expressive arts.

There are some challenges to sustained shared thinking, which need to be met in the specific areas, such as the use of technology that shuts down conversations between children and adults (or children and children). It is likely that you will need to be a more reflective practitioner when considering how children construct their mathematical knowledge, as this is one area where the received curriculum may be very different to the planned curriculum.

It is whilst engaging in sustained shared thinking in the specific areas that you may have to incorporate more active listening and positive questioning. Although this may be more challenging, it can be very enlightening, as well as very rewarding.


Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I. and Taggart, B. (2004) The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education [EPPE] Project Effective Pre-School Education: A Longitudinal Study funded by the DfES 1997 - 2004 London: DfES 

Kathy Brodie’s book: Sustained Shared Thinking: Linking theory to practice published by David Fulton is available from Amazon and good book stores.


Kathy Brodie
Kathy Brodie is an Early Years Professional and trainer based in East Cheshire, specialising in the Early Years Foundation Stage and Special Educational Needs. She has designed and delivered many courses within the early years and has a particular interest in training practitioners working with the under 2s. Kathy also mentors EYTS candidates and tutors students undertaking the Foundation Degree. She was awarded a Masters in Early Childhood Education from the University of Sheffield in 2011.<br />Kathy's book, 'Observation, Assessment and Planning in the Early Years' was published in 2013 by Open University Press.

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