Positive relationships: Key people - part 4 - All part of the job

Those having responsibility as a key carer need to be honest with themselves about the emotional and personal demands of the role as they tune in to individual children, says Anne O'Connor.

'The key person should meet the needs of each child in their care and respond sensitively to their feelings, ideas and behaviour, talking to parents to make sure that the child is being cared for appropriately for each family.' (Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage, p37)

This is a fairly straightforward statement about the role of the key person - and it could be argued that this would be expected of anyone working with children.

However, what sets the key person approach apart from conventional 'serial care' (in which any number of adults may have responsibility for a child over the course of a day) is the very special nature of the close relationship that is promoted by key caring.

Although the organisational aspects of the key person approach might be different in individual settings (including childminders in the home), there are certain fundamental responsibilities that should be the same for everyone working as a key carer, regardless of their environment.


Building a special, reciprocal relationship is the primary responsibility and, because it is based on the very best attentive and nurturing care, it enables the key people to 'tune in' to each of the children in their group. To carry this out well, key carers need to:

- find out as much as possible from parents about the child's emotional responses, their routines and motivations

- combine this information with a good understanding of child development in order to provide consistent, individualised care and appropriate play experiences

- liaise closely with previous and future carers to support the child and their family through the transition when children are moving between settings. This means more than just passing on records of development. It is the little details - of a child's routines, their habits, motivations and dispositions - that are important in the early stages of getting to know a child and preparing the environment for them

- 'tune in' to children's need for security and their motivation for independence, by providing a safe base from which to branch out and explore, as well as being someone to whom they can return when they need comfort and reassurance

- interact with key children, using touch, eye contact, body language, smiles and warmth of voice to show that you are physically and emotionally available to them

- understand and provide safe containment when a child is distressed or experiencing strong emotions by acknowledging feelings and allowing children to express them, rather than dampening them down


Taking responsibility for a child's physical care, including changing, mealtimes, rest and handover times, is another fundamental part of the key caring relationship. To do this well, key carers need to:

- recognise the impact these routine times of the day have on the emotional well-being of babies and young children

- handle children with respect and sensitivity, giving them your full attention and not rushing through the process

- make the most of personal care routines as a time for nurture and attachment building, through affectionate physical contact and playfulness

- focus on the child and the quality of the interactions between you, including eye contact and non-verbal communication as well as conversations and chat

- talk to the family and make sure that you adopt the same approaches to toilet training (for example) and tune in to the individual ways children behave when they need the toilet, or are feeling tired or hungry

- tune in to the child's (and parents') needs around transitions at the beginning and end of the day. Find out what works best for them and do what you can to provide the reassurance and support that helps make handovers less traumatic for both of them.


There is no denying that key caring is a complex and sophisticated approach. It is hard work being a key person, and the role is intense and demanding emotionally. Practitioners have a personal responsibility to look after themselves and be honest about the challenges. To do this well, key carers need to:

- find time to reflect on the role and talk through issues and concerns regularly with key partners, colleagues and managers

- be aware of how aspects of key caring might trigger emotional responses relating to your own experiences (as a child or as a parent, perhaps) or challenge your pre-conceived ideas about parenting and bringing up children

- be supportive of other team members and ready to respond flexibly so that they can best meet the needs of their key children (for example, when a child is distressed, or needs lots of attention)

- be honest with yourself and colleagues about the challenges the role brings. Be open to the emotions and feelings (good and bad) thrown up by relating so closely with individual children and their families

- be clear about the need for adequate supervision and mentoring that the role demands. This is essential to ensure accountability and maintain professional boundaries, and needs to be in place from the start. Be assertive about your needs - and entitlement - to this very essential feature of the approach.

Part 5 of this series will appear in Nursery World on 10 July


- Sally Thomas (Feb 2008) 'Nurturing Babies and Children Under Four' (DVD and Resource Pack). Heinemann

- Peter Elfer, Elinor Goldschmied, Dorothy Selleck (2003) Key Persons in the Nursery: Building Relationships for Quality Provision. David Fulton

- Elinor Goldschmied and Sonia Jackson (1994) People Under Three - Young children in daycare. Routledge

Siren Films, 'Life at Two - Attachments, Key people and Development (+User notes), www.sirenfilms.co.uk

- 'Implementing the Early Years Foundation Stage', Set 1, leaflet 2 on the Key Person and Interactions, by Early Education, www.early-education.org.uk

- 'All About ... Developing Positive Relationships with Children' by Julian Grenier (Nursery World, 2 June 2005) 

- Nursery World's series on Attachment appeared in 11 October, 8 November, 13 December 2007, 10 January, 14 February 2008


- UC 1.1 Child Development

- PR 2.4 Key Person

- EE 3.2 Supporting Every Child.

Nursery World Print & Website

  • Latest print issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Free monthly activity poster
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


Nursery World Digital Membership

  • Latest digital issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


© MA Education 2020. Published by MA Education Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 04002826. MA Education is part of the Mark Allen Group. – All Rights Reserved