Mere moments after birth, new-born babies engage in interaction with their caregivers. Each child is hard-wired to seek out and respond to interaction, connecting through eye-contact, coos, gurgles, babbles and smiles.
As Alison Gopnik and colleagues state, when we see a baby in their cot, we’re observing, “the greatest mind that has ever existed, the most powerful learning machine in the universe.“
The science is clear: brains are built not born. Nurturing, responsive interactions are vital for healthy neural development.
What does this mean for educators of young children in early years settings, nursery and reception classes?
The evidence on high-quality interactions
We know from several decades of research that high-quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) has a positive effect on children’s educational, cognitive, behavioural and social development. Effective early years provision combines care with education, focusing on both social and cognitive development.
The EEF’s Preparing for Literacy guidance report identifies seven evidence-informed recommendations which underpin high-quality early years provision.
The report highlights the need to prioritise the development of young children’s early communication and language, with an emphasis on supporting educators to engage in high-quality interactions:
So, what are features of high-quality interactions and what can we learn from exploring the evidence?
1. The role of the adult is to be attuned and responsive.
Establishing warm, trusting and responsive relationships with young children is at the heart of early years practice. The importance of attending to children’s social and emotional well-being and development has been found to have a positive impact on language development, as highlighted in the evidence review carried out as part of the EEF funded Manor Park Talks pilot (Ang and Harmey, 2019)
The following strategies encourage children to engage in conversational interactions:
- Maintain eye contact: look expectantly at children as you engage in conversation with them.
- Be warm and receptive: welcome children’s attempts to communicate
- Promote friendship: foster children’s friendship skills, emotional understanding and emotional expression.
- Promote cooperation: offer children opportunities to ‘practice’ friendship skills such as sharing by encouraging cooperative games and acknowledging and valuing positive behaviours.
The role of the adult is to listen to children and encourage sustained back and forth conversations.
Active ‘serve and return’ interactions between the child and the adult pave the way for conversation, providing children with the blueprint for turn-taking. Adults can harness the power of conversation by engaging with children in the following ways:
- Make time to sensitively join in with children’s play: follow their lead and establish shared attention on the child’s focus of interest.
- Listen carefully and scaffold language responsively, expanding and extending on what the child says.
- Model talking about what the child sees and does. Put simply, comment more, question less.
- Engage in back and forth conversations that involve multiple turns. Aim for involving children in more than four conversational turns.
- Make it meaningful. There are plenty of social opportunities each day, such as ‘snack time’, so take time to exploit day to day routines and activities.
- Go beyond the ‘here and now’. It is important to start to use ‘decontextualised talk’ (from around 3 years of age) to broaden children’s understanding of word meanings. And so, engage in pretend play, talk about past and future events, offer explanations and more.
- Wait! This is a golden rule: always give children time to listen, process and respond.
As early years educators, we have the privilege of building on the essential foundations caregivers have established. We can see from the evidence through the power of responsive, stimulating conversational interactions we can really make a difference to the ‘most powerful learning machine in the universe’.