Responsive teaching and child-centred education

Macquarie University Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood, Dr Rebecca Andrews and the Mia Mia Child and Family Study Centre Assistant Director, Mel Ferris share their research and insights on educational practices.

Image: Macquarie University Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood, Dr Rebecca Andrews

Dr Andrews’ research focuses on social interactions, emotional knowledge and memory in early childhood, exploring how educator-child interactions and learning occurs in early childhood and care services.

Mel Ferris is an Early Childhood Teacher and the Assistant Director at Mia Mia Child and Family Study Centre, a long day program that delivers innovative practice. Mia Mia is the demonstration centre for the School of Education at Macquarie University, offering opportunities for training, mentoring, observation and research.

Both work on the lands of the Wallumattagal clan of the Dharug Nation.

Responsive teaching develops meaningful interactions and relationships

Dr Andrews and Mel have both seen the importance of responsive teaching within their roles, as quality interactions between children and educators have long-term learning and other developmental benefits for the child, aligned with the EYLF (Early Years Learning Framework).

“Responsive teaching, element 1.2.2 under the NQF, focuses on knowing and valuing each child’s strengths, skills and knowledge – it’s about responding to their ideas and play, and looking for opportunities to extend their learning,” Dr Andrews said.

“We know when this practice occurs, children are viewed as central to the educational program and there are associated learning and developmental benefits.”

"My own research into educator-child conversations, which is one example of responsive teaching, looked at how educators engage children in meaningful and elaborative conversations about past events (reminiscing) and talk about the future.”

“We found key features of responsive teaching were displayed including use of contextual information and using open questions, and saw the children were more likely to contribute, as well as allowing for the shared construction of memory.”

“Children will learn important things through these conversations – they learn that if a trusted educator wants to recall shared past events with them, then their life experiences are meaningful. They learn how to locate events in time and how to mentally organise and narrate their experience,” Dr Andrews said.

"These learnings all point to a range of social, emotional and cognitive – particularly memory and language - developmental benefits.”

This can be seen in practice, as Mel shared when children have a level of comfort with an educator, they feel more secure to engage more deeply in learning.

"Relational pedagogy is at the heart of everything we do – we know when educators and children have meaningful relationships, their learning outcomes are enhanced,” Mel said.

“Having quality, nurturing and consistent interactions with the children supports them to engage deeply with the program and learning.”

“For us at Mia Mia, we see the benefits of responsive teaching in the way children actively engage with the curriculum. Children feel we are responding to them in meaningful, positive and caring ways and they want to engage a little bit more and feel deeply invested."

Self-directed learning builds children’s sense of agency

Mel knows as an educator, there is a daily dance to find the perfect balance between child-directed learning and adult-directed engagement.

“Children are deeply invested in their learning when they’re interested and focused,” Mel said.

“Self-directed learning is about respecting children’s agency, trying to not interrupt their flow and knowing when to step back.”

“At Mia Mia we have large blocks of time daily for self-directed learning for the children to develop their sense of agency – this may involve choosing between indoor or outdoor play, and also using environmental queues (for example, turning on the lights to show the room is open) during transitions to prompt rather than interrupt the children,” Mel said.

Dr Andrews shared that by allowing children to be co-constructors of their own learning, they can feel a sense of belonging, of being and becoming.

“The long-term benefits of high-quality child-centred programs where children take part in self-directed learning has been investigated across many countries,” Dr Andrews said.

“As educators, we do this by knowing the children and developing close relationships with them and their families, to provide provocations that will allow children to begin or extend a learning journey.”

"I encourage educators to think about times during their day where they might want to use direct instruction to stop and think: Are we providing the children with an opportunity for agency, or is it focused on educators' needs? If appropriate, can practices be changed? “

To prepare and share

Both responsive teaching and child directed learning require preparation, critical reflection and sharing, which is seen across the elements of Quality Area 1.

“At Mia Mia, we are very blessed to have a weekly curriculum meeting where we unpack the possibilities of learning, talk about the children’s current interests, and find meaningful ways to challenge and extend this learning,” Mel shared.

“These in-depth conversations and critical reflections allow us as educators to enhance the children’s ideas and engage – working on the curriculum together helps to extend the quality we can offer the children and families.”

Dr Andrews shared that it is important to always think about element 1.3.3, information for families, including providing responsive teaching and child-directed learning practices updates.

“As families become aware how educators enhance their understanding of individual children and the educator’s ability to work with their child’s interests and ideas, the sharing of these practices can strengthen connections to families,” Dr Andrews said.

Key tips for educators to engage with responsive teaching

  • Capitalise on the everyday opportunities to build deep connections – From warmly greeting the children in the morning, to assisting them with washing their hands, these routine moments that often get missed can be the best way to meaningfully develop a relationship with the child. Children will engage, play and learn more authentically with educators when they have a developed relationship.
  • Be open to unexpected experiences for new learning – We should always be flexible and open to unexpected experiences outside our planned daily program, as it offers rich ways to engage and connect with children. For example, utilising the rain as an opportunity for play and learning and growing together.
  • Remember to pause and listen – Rather than probing with questions, take a moment to stop, pause, look and listen to the children. Give the children the opportunity to articulate what they are interested in learning, new ideas and things to explore. Children will provide those possibilities of what to do next!
Image: Mia Mia Child and Family Studies Assistant Director Mel Ferris
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