How Sustained Shared Thinking Helps Preschool Children negotiate and problem-solve

Sustained Shared Thinking (SST)

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Raising a child involves a lot more than keeping them fed and healthy, we are learning more every year about the importance of the cognitive development of young children, and how we can manipulate our speech to improve theirs using different strategies; one of those being ‘Sustained Shared Thinking’ (SST). 

So, what exactly is Sustained Shared thinking?

First researched in 2002 by Kathy Sylva et al., SST describes an instance of a child having an in-depth conversation with an adult, where the adult would question the child on their thoughts. These questions must be asked in a certain way to draw deep thought from the child, to induce a sense of consideration into what their thoughts are on a topic. 

Such a practice not only teaches the child that their views are valid and important but also kickstarts a pattern of thinking geared towards problem-solving and negotiation. 

The Evidence

Studies in daycare centres have focused on the difference in staff communication styles with children, and its effect on the child’s development. The daycare centres were considered to be of varying quality, going by the amount of time staff spent in one-to-one communication with the children. 

The centres where staff had more time for SST (Sustained Shared Thinking) with the children demonstrated a more positive impact on these children’s cognitive development. They were able to engage in problem-solving activities and form logical opinions based on the information they had at hand. 

Comparatively, the children at the centres with less SST appeared to view problems as external to themselves and did not attempt to engage in these same problem-solving activities.

Implementing SST Practices

  1. Encouraging the staff to participate in active listening is where this journey begins, and Sylva notes how busy our lives are, which means that we are not always in the present moment. Sustained shared thinking must start with the adult actively listening to what the child has to say and engaging in a conversation with that child, ignoring any distractions. One way to achieve this is to dismiss other interactions or demands when taking part in SST, reinforcing the importance of the conversation to the child. 
  2. Positive questioning is the next step – when you notice a child in deep thought about something, open questions such as ‘what can you tell me about that?’ should be asked, to encourage the child to elaborate on their thoughts. These questions should always have positive connotations and never put the child down in a negative way. Asking ‘why’ is not recommended as part of this practice as it can make the child feel defensive, as though they have to explain themselves. Stick to questions beginning with ‘what’ and ‘how’ to keep a positive tone.
  3. To facilitate this practice in some have staff had meetings together to block out time with certain children, to allow this positive questioning to happen naturally. Sylva emphasises how SST doesn’t demand, and that it is essential to wait for the moment to happen organically. Some staff also coordinated specific signals between each other so that they knew when not to interrupt.
  4. Recording these interactions is essential when keeping track of a child’s progress. After an interaction which involved SST, noting down the topic of conversation, how the child responded, and any changes since the last conversion could indicate how well the child is developing.
  5. Though most SST is focused on staff-child interaction, it can also occur between two or more children, where they repeat learned behaviours from the language used by their carers. While taking part in supervised activities, observe each child’s role in the task, and encourage them to work together to solve the problem. This teaches children how to work constructively together and builds their confidence both individually and as a team!

The act of sustained shared thinking builds the roots for a confident communicator, a child who is not afraid of making mistakes and does not see problems negatively. 

Learning how to interact with others teaches children key skills that will benefit them well into their adult lives. SST should be introduced to parents and carers to give maximum effect, and ultimately produce a constructive, well-mannered individual. 

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