Parent Guide: What are the Characteristics of Effective Learning?

Sue Allingham explains how little ones learn how to learn.
  • The Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning are maybe the most central area of focus for early years practitioners in the UK.
  • Read on as Sue Allingham outlines what they are and how you can watch out for and support them at home.

Did you know that the daily happenings in your child’s setting have to be informed by something called ‘Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning’?

This means that everything at the setting, including the environments that your children are active in throughout the day, has been thought about and developed with these Characteristics in mind. They are the three characteristics that drive our teaching and signpost to us that a child is learning:

  • Playing and exploring – Children investigate and experience things, and ‘have a go’.
  • Active learning – Children concentrate and keep on trying if they encounter difficulties, and enjoy achievements.
  • Creating and thinking critically – Children have and develop their own ideas, make links between ideas, and develop strategies for doing things.

But why are they so important? And how can they help you understand your child’s development better during lockdown and beyond?

In this series of two articles, we are going to unpick why the Characteristics are important enough to be statutory for Early Years settings, why they really matter, and how we can watch out for and develop them at home.

What are the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning?

When we think of ‘teaching and learning’ it is easy to think about being taught to read, write and understand mathematical strategies. But it’s easy to overlook that there are skills and knowledge that it’s vital we develop and practice alongside more academic skills in order for it all to become embedded, practiced, and investigated. These are the ‘Characteristics’ and another way of looking at them is to call them the skills we need for life.

Whilst all this might sound a little complicated, it doesn’t have to be. There is a great deal that can be done at home to develop these skills, and it’s just a matter of looking differently at everyday things you’re already doing, and making some small changes here and there.

The Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning are divided into three sections. They’re all interconnected and overlap with one another, and hopefully you’ll already recognise a lot of these characteristics in your children. All children demonstrate each of them at some time – provided they’re given the opportunities to do so.

So, how can we do this at home? The first of these two articles will look at practical ways to develop two of the three Characteristics. Next time, we’ll look at exactly how the third characteristic builds upon the first two and how all three underpin teaching and learning.

Playing and exploring – Engagement

When children are playing there are a great deal of important skills being developed. And the best part is that there is no need for expensive equipment or toys for this to happen.

How many times have you watched your child open a present, put the gift to one side and continue playing with the box and the paper? We might be a bit disappointed that our choice of gift is being temporarily ignored, but there’s no doubting it’s a delightful experience for the child.

This delight is shown in the ‘engagement’ they demonstrate in what they are doing. When a child – or adult for that matter – is really engaged in what they are doing, then they are focused and not easily distracted. Think about when you are reading or doing something you really enjoy. You’re not happy to be interrupted because you are concentrating – this means you are engaged with what you are doing.

There are three strands under this characteristic. They are:

  • Finding out and exploring
    • Showing curiosity about objects, events and people
    • Using senses to explore the world around them
    • Engaging in open-ended activity
    • Showing particular interests
  • Playing with what they know
    • Pretending objects are things from their experience
    • Representing their experiences in play
    • Taking on a role in their play
    • Acting out experiences with other people
  • Being willing to ‘have a go’
    • Initiating activities
    • Seeking challenge
    • Showing a ‘can do’ attitude
    • Taking a risk, engaging in new experiences, and learning by
      trial and error

Whilst we are in lockdown you and your children can still be using these skills. In fact you may well realise that you are doing a lot of them anyway and you don’t need a very big space, garden or lots of resources to play and explore.

Instead, look at the things you do and say everyday when you are together, and thread some ‘wondering’ questions into that routine.

For example, you can ask, I wonder:

  • What would happen if we went a different way to the shops?
  • If we will meet anyone we know?
  • If it will rain today?

The list goes on and on and you will think of many more too. Then comes the challenge of finding an answer and what you then do with the knowledge you have both gained together. To do so, it’s time to add ‘how’ to the questions:

I wonder how:

  • It would look if…
  • It would feel if…
  • It would sound if…

And again we have an endless list. Neither of you will know what any of the answers are going to be but you’ll be exploring and investigating together – and that’s what matters.

What all that means is you’re both engaged in active learning, which brings us nicely onto the next subject.

Active learning – Motivation

If you are engaged in what you are doing then you’re motivated to do more – that’s what keeps the learning active. So in many ways this second characteristic is about moving the thinking forward.

Once again we have three strands that explain this characteristic. They are:

  • Being involved and concentrating
    • Maintaining focus on their activity for a period of time
    • Showing high levels of energy, fascination
    • Not easily distracted
    • Paying attention to details
  • Keeping on trying
    • Persisting with activity when challenges occur
    • Showing a belief that more effort or a different approach will pay off
    • Bouncing back after difficulties
  • Enjoying achieving what they set out to do
    • Showing satisfaction in meeting their own goals
    • Being proud of how they accomplished something – not just the end result
    • Enjoying meeting challenges for their own sake rather than external rewards or praise

We can see here how the characteristics of being engaged and motivated develop into the vital skills of persistence and resilience. Understanding that it doesn’t matter if things go wrong the first time, because we can usually have another go maybe using a different method, or a tool. This can be a difficult enough skill for adults at times, but a vital one that we can model to children as we go about our day.

For example, if you are toilet training your child then it’s fair to say it won’t always go smoothly. But it will work in the end so accept the situation and work with your child, encouraging them all the way. By doing so, you’re modelling to them how it’s a challenge, but also celebrating the little successes along the way.

Don’t dwell on the mishaps – they are all part of the journey. Your Key Person at your setting will help with this too and hopefully, even though we’re distant right now, you can still stay in touch and share strategies with one another. This type of motivation and persisting when things don’t go right the first time can easily be modelled through play too.

Reflect on things like building with blocks; what happens if it all falls down? It’s frustrating, but rather than getting fed up, show how we can try again. Work with your child on what you might do differently this time. Perhaps take pictures as you go along to see what worked and what didn’t.

If you’re out and about perhaps there could be a challenge to balance on a wall, or race to the corner with a sibling – remembering that it’s not all about winning.

Notice the third strand in this characteristic is about helping children to enjoy what they have achieved, and to feel proud of what they have accomplished. Whatever it is, it’s important to note this is not about extrinsic rewards like stickers or treats. It’s about knowing that trying something and having a go is worthwhile too, which is why it’s so important to enjoy every small success. It’s about accepting the challenge – persisting with it is the reward.

Dr Sue Allingham has both an MA and a Doctorate in Early Childhood Education from the University of Sheffield. She is the author of Transitions in the Early Years and writes regularly for Early Years Educator – EYE – magazine where she is Consultant Editor. Sue is also an independent consultant and trainer with her company Early Years Out of the Box Consultancy.

Ready for part two?

Part two is all about the final characteristic, critical thinking.

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