Positive Relationships: Key people - Part 5 - Time to act

Anne O'Connor
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Adopting a key person approach requires careful preparation and organisation by the staff team in any setting, as well as reviewing practice once they have started using it, writes Anne O'Connor.

For many people the principles of the key person approach make good sound sense, but establishing and maintaining the approach presents such a daunting challenge that they are reluctant to implement it fully, falling back on a half-way house of named 'key workers' filling out records and meeting with parents. And in a way, they are right - this isn't an approach that should be entered into without a great deal of reflection, forward planning and problem-solving.

It's certainly not something that settings can implement overnight by changing timetables and rotas or job descriptions. Without the opportunity to reflect on the approach, to consider all the challenges and embrace all the principles, it will still be nothing more than a system that ticks a few requirements but doesn't bring profound benefits to children, their families or the practitioners who work with them.


Where the approach works well, settings have given themselves lots of time to explore in advance what it will mean to their practice.

- Provide opportunities for all staff to attend training sessions and to share feedback with colleagues.

- Training and reflection should emphasise the importance of relationships and the 'triangle' of child, parents and key people.

- Invite a 'critical friend' to provide support, guidance and challenge as you assess your current provision and to maintain this as you work through the process.

- Make visits and consider the wide variety of ways in which other settings make the approach work. What particular aspects and features of your setting will need to be taken into account to make it work for you and your families?

- Very often, once the training and reflection process has begun, practitioners find that they approach their current ways of working with a new insight. This, in turn, triggers lots more questions about the new approach and the challenges it may bring.

- Being able to talk about and solve problems arising with these issues before the approach is in place will build confidence in everyone.

- Building commitment and a shared vision is important in ensuring that everyone is open to the possibilities that a new approach will bring.

- Keep parents involved with the reflection and planning process by talking it through with them and responding to their questions and concerns.

- But don't hold off for too long - good leadership is about knowing when the time has come to act on all the planning and reflection.

- Regular review and evaluation should be part of a successful key-caring approach anyway, so there should be no unreasonable expectations about it being immediately perfect for everyone.


There are obvious staffing implications in taking a key caring approach.

- Once statutory requirements are met, settings will have to decide whether there is scope for improving on these in order to meet the needs of their families and children.

- Decide how best to organise age groups. One of the drawbacks to single-age rooms is that it can increase the number of transitions a child has to experience. Some settings have found that a more natural division occurs between 'under-threes' and 'over-threes' and then create relatively open-plan areas within each of these.

- One way of removing the problems of transition from room to room, or across areas, is for the key person to move with their children, and to stay with them throughout their time in the setting. This is a powerful way of nurturing secure attachments and can have profound benefits for children's all-round development as well as their emotional well-being.

- Creating 'family groups' across the entire age range is another way of addressing this, obviously used to good effect by childminders. A vertically-aged group may present some challenges, but it can be an ideal way of providing personalised care and realistic relationships.

- Weigh up the best way of deploying staff and how many children will be allocated to each key group.

- Not everyone needs to be a designated key person. Think about giving team leaders a commitment to build wider relationships, so that they can step in to support and cover when a key person is absent. They provide the 'safety net' to ensure that the system is manageable in all eventualities, and can mentor and support less experienced staff at the same time.

- Creating partnerships or 'paired and shared caring' between key people, where they can build relationships across their groups, also makes it easier to deal with shifts, absences and so on, as well as providing support for each other and greater security for parents.

- There are good examples of paired childminders who are able to provide the ultimate in key caring by being able to support each other and provide different aspects of personalised care. This might involve a family partnership working together, such as a husband and wife or other family members, or two individual childminders working closely together as a team.

- In reception classes where there is a teacher and more than one assistant, it can work well if the assistants are given key person responsibility and the class teacher assumes the role of partner for each of them. Ideally, this leads to a greater quality of personalised care for children, and the teacher benefits from the depth of knowledge of children's individual needs the key people can provide.

- Make sure everyone is clear about their roles and explore in advance some of the scenarios that might happen. Talk about possible solutions to problems and situations and ensure everyone understands the lines of management, mentoring and supervision.

- Review the provision regularly and be ready to adapt it flexibly when necessary, but don't lose sight of the principles and non-negotiable aspects of the approach. Even where circumstances don't allow you to put the ideal provision in place at first, it is still worth holding on to the vision. Make the most of every opportunity to move practice forward to a true and effective key-caring approach.

With thanks to staff at Randolph Beresford Early Years Centre for help in preparing this article


- 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' (plus 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.

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