Working in early years is an extremely rewarding career but boy is it hard work, and at times absolutely exhausting! There, I’ve said it.
Contrary to popular belief, we don’t just sit playing with playdough all day, although with courage in our convictions we can all get back to doing more of what we love and what we came into this job for in the first place.
All the people I work with are here because of a genuine love for the children. We make sure of it when recruiting. The passion we have is what drives us but equally, it is what puts pressure on us when we feel we can’t give our best.
Looking back, yes, we were probably guilty of being stuck in a rut of doing things because we thought it would be good for Ofsted. Yes, our action plans where massive. Yes, we were trying to please early years educators from the local authority and yes, time out and planning were always brought up on annual questionnaires.
We began to look at it and make changes. Here’s what we came up with.
Recruitment and retention, career choices and job satisfaction
We have always said that our staff are our greatest asset. From a three-day induction period and a buddy system, people learn and grow into their roles during their probationary periods.
Our supervisions are not just a paper exercise completed and filed away to be forgotten. Their effectiveness in discussing the practitioners’ key group, workload and involvement in the setting that term keeps the focus on them and their needs.
Training is staff and team specific. From internal and external training days to short video clips, we have learned how to be clever in how we support professional development, identifying people’s strengths and supporting their weaknesses.
Peer observations that we once did because someone told us to have been reintroduced because it was the right time for us. They have put people in charge of their own learning where they initiate sharing expertise and knowledge across the teams through observation and professional reflections.
Team surveys have been revamped and help us to be proactive rather than reactive by using questions that focus on elements of well-being and involvement, helping us to analyse each setting and any specific needs individuals or teams may have throughout the year.
We can see where individuals and our teams are almost engaged, engaged or super engaged, which all helps with motivating people and growing your own leaders.
And then there is, of course, the fun stuff! Termly staff awards, no sickness bonuses, personal letters home of praise or thanks from the director, annual company awards night, conferences, exhibitions and nights away, and lunches at meetings.
Work and workload
Our new motto – less is more! This has come about as we have learned how to reflect better and have the confidence that what we do works.
After drastically reducing our planning in 2012, the second scary change we made was in 2014 as we took our learning journeys online.
It seemed a no-brainer that it would cut the time spent on admin around the EYFS but there is something to watch out for if you are thinking of taking the leap; if the setting still has high expectations around the number of observations that people have to do then going online won’t cut down work – it merely moves it elsewhere. We had already slimmed down our planning and paperwork and this has continued with the system we chose. We still do minimal short observations and - take a deep breath - we don’t ask for evidence for every single Development Matters statement for each child.
We were so excited when we got rid of the online self-evaluation form. Our new action plans are now reviewed with our teams which means that everyone provides input and is able to come up with ideas that are listened to and actioned. Courage has come from the success of these, and there are visible improvements in practice because of them.
Instead of doing a little about a lot and not getting very far, we now do a lot about just one or two things at a time and see a really measurable impact.
I would urge everyone to be confident in knowing what works for them and have the courage to go ahead and do it, even if it means being brave and scrapping stuff you usually do ‘just in case’.
We have cut the admin around our action plans even more this month. It’s all about the discussions and not the paper trail.
Our stressors questionnaire was a real turning point in strengthening the positive culture within our settings. In the simplest explanation, it asks each individual what their stressors or triggers at work are. From an apprentice, a practitioner and a SENDCO, to the deputy or the manager, people really get to understand the roles of others, what it entails and the things that make them feel pressures, whether internal or external. This helped us finalise our policy and risk assessment for mental health and well-being as the teams started to reflect on what we already had in place, what they had control of, what they needed to be responsible for and anything else they thought we could do together.
Mental and physical health and resilience
Being one of the first early years settings to sign the Time To Change employers’ pledge is something we are very proud of. It has been pivotal in helping us refocus and rediscover the direction we want to take in relation to supporting staff well-being.
It was really quite scary to begin with, after all we are not mental health experts.
Free NVQs have given some of the team knowledge around mental illness and Time To Charge resources have helped us understand how to promote good mental health. We are able to listen and discuss the things that were once scary and, most importantly, we know where to signpost if necessary.
We have learned that well-being is a right for everyone (including senior leaders and managers). It doesn’t mean keep the team happy by managers taking on everything themselves. In fact, we have learned that quite the opposite works – when people are involved and have a say in what is going on, they are more likely to be motivated in their work, to complete tasks and have ideas of their own. People look forward to coming into work because they are truly part of the team, they are decision makers and do-ers.
If they have an issue, they know they can be open and honest and talk to us. When they don’t have to take work home, they can truly relax and be ready for what tomorrow brings.
We have also learned that supporting mental health and well-being is not just about being nice to people. People have still got to be accountable or the pressures and stress will just move elsewhere.
It isn’t just about having a weekly yoga session or a fruit bowl on the table in the staff room. No amount of fruit is going to make a person feel better about their workload.
We have worked hard on developing respect, integrity, empathy and trust, as well as collaborating and developing a genuine culture where everyone can thrive.
From making our staff rooms calmer places, to take a break, curry and chat nights, staff shout-out boards and well-being baskets, people are now slowly beginning to take the lead and recognise signs of stress or anxiety in themselves. We run initiatives and awareness days such as Red January and Active April, which promote the five ways to well-being. Staff now choose to go for a walk on their lunch to clear their heads.
I want to remind everyone that what we do isn’t rocket science and it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. We will all be making lots of similar changes – it is about bringing things to life rather than being just a tick box exercise.
We want to create a culture that supports job satisfaction, well-being and performance.
I’d say it’s a win win for everyone involved.
- Time to Change (time-to-change.org.uk) – a growing social movement working to change attitudes towards mental health
- The five ways to well-being – connect with people around you, be active, take notice, keep learning and give something back. Find out more at nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/improve-mental-wellbeing/
- Red January (redtogether.co.uk) – supporting mental health through exercise
- Active April (actionforhappiness.org) – suggested activities throughout April to give minds and bodies a boost