“Sustained Shared Thinking” (SST) is a term describing effective interactions that arose from two influential UK research projects back in the early noughties: The Effective Pre-school and Primary Education (EPPE) and the Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years (REPEY) projects. Both projects define sustained shared thinking as “where two or more individuals ‘work together’ in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities, or extend a narrative.”

So what does this look like in practice? It’s when adults and children think together or ask questions about why things happen the way they do, or how things work. For example, when Zenya asks you why the rain is wet or when Harry begins investigating how the internet works. Sustained shared thinking happens when your key group decide to tell their own story at home time and make up the characters, setting and whole narrative, with only a few prompts from you. It’s also when you pose ‘I wonder...’ or ‘What if…’ questions and when one of your children decides to ‘teach’ another how to make a car out of blocks.

Sustained Shared Thinking may be a fairly new term, having only been around for under twenty years, but sustained shared thinking is, in my view, not a new concept! Children have always questioned things and investigated the world, and educators have always enabled children to come to their own conclusions, or prompted them to think again about certain concepts to clarify or correct misconceptions. We could talk about scaffolding children or supporting them in the zone of proximal development, but perhaps it is easier to think about engaging with children and responding sensitively.
So our role as the adult is to tune in to the child, listen to them and respond appropriately. We need to be interested in what the children are exploring or engaging with and notice how they are interacting. The best way to do this is to literally get down onto our hands and knees and become engrossed ourselves! To not just play alongside, but instead be a co-player, someone who can offer ideas in leading the play, but also someone who can be led by the children.

We must remain sensitive however, of not hijacking the children’s play, or always trying to extend and challenge children’s thinking. Yes, this is part of our role, but not all of the time and certainly not in a forced way. Julie Fisher challenges us to think about whether we are interacting sensitively with children or interfering in their play. Clearly we want it to be the former. She also talks about how adults can continue the learning momentum for children, through the way we interact.

A metaphor that I have found useful, is the idea that our role as educator is “to open gateways to new understandings for children as they participate in the world around them” (Anning and Edwards, 2006). I love the imagery of this: opening gateways is a gentle way of showing children possibilities. A gateway can act as a doorway into new and exciting learning opportunities or even as a way of seeing the bigger picture, but an open gateway is an invitation. Children can choose to go through or not.

So let’s engage in sustained shared thinking with our children and open gateways to possibilities that they have never even dreamed of.

How adults can engage in sustained shared thinking interactions:

  • Tuning in
  • Showing interest
  • Elaborating
  • Recapping
  • Offering own experience
  • Clarifying ideas
  • Suggesting
  • Reminding
  • Encouraging
  • Offering an alternative viewpoint
  • Speculating
  • Reciprocating
  • Asking open questions
  • Modelling thinking

(Siraj-Blatchford, 2005

Continuing the learning momentum:

  • Commenting
  • Pondering
  • Imagining
  • Connecting
  • Thinking aloud
  • Talking about feelings
  • Reflecting back to children
  • Supporting the child to make  choices and decisions
  • Explaining and informing
  • Posing problems
  • Staying quiet

(Fisher, 2016)


Siraj-Blatchford, I. and Taggart, B. (Eds) (2010). Early childhood matters evidence from the Effective Pre-school and Primary Education project. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge. P. 157
Anning, A. & Edwards, A. (2006) Promoting Children’s Learning from Birth to Five Maidenhead: Open University Press
Fisher, J. (2016) Interacting or Interfering? Improving interactions in the early years. Maidenhead: Open University Press


About the author

Tamsin GTamsin Grimmer photo2rimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.

Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.

You can contact Tamsin via Twitter @tamsingrimmer, her Facebook pagewebsite or email info@tamsingrimmer.co.uk

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