Positive Relationships: Professionalism - A guilty secret

Jayne Osgood
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The juggling act between being professional and acting motherly is examined by Jayne Osgood.

Do you feel like a second mum at work? Should you be motherly towards the children in your care? How do the children's mothers respond to you as a nursery worker?

These were just some of the issues raised in a four-year study that sought to explore:

- nursery workers' views and experiences of being understood as professional

- what constitutes 'professionalism' in early years settings.

Conducted by the Institute for Policy Studies in Education, at London Metropolitan University, the study involved in-depth investigations in private, voluntary and state-run nurseries through repeat interviews with 27 nursery workers, from managerial level to trainees.

Professionalism is frequently defined as something that requires workers to be rational, dispassionate and unemotional in their day-to-day activities. But for early years practitioners, these traits are arguably inappropriate.

The study findings indicate that working effectively with children is informed by mothering practices and, furthermore, that professionalism in nursery work does involve being caring, nurturing and emotionally committed.

The principal similarities with mothering lie in the nature of the work. Like a mother, a nursery worker has to meet the basic physical, social and emotional needs of the child. Like the 'good/sensitive' mother, the effective nursery worker should be able to nurture the child to become an autonomous, self-regulatory individual - an aim encompassed in the Birth to Three Matters Framework, which promotes a strong child, a skilful communicator, a competent learner, and a healthy child.

What also emerged from the study, however, were the differing and ambivalent views that nursery workers held about the 'mothering' aspect of their role.

While some nursery workers drew upon their experience of mothering, others refuted any comparison in equal measure, and most appeared to wrestle with ideas about what professionalism in the nursery was (that is, emotional, nurturing) and what it should be (dispassionate and objective).

The women stressed the importance of boundaries, objectivity and the ability to disengage at the end of the day as key aspects of professionalism. Yet there was also widespread acknowledgement that the work required emotional and psychic investments.

In their quest to be 'taken seriously' or to have professional status bestowed upon them, many workers were found to assume that emotional aspects of the work should be hidden from view.

A maternal disposition appeared throughout many of the workers' narratives, but it was readily dismissed as if it were a 'guilty secret' - something widely taken on but routinely hidden from view or actively suppressed.


This 'guilty secret' was further complicated by the relationships that nursery staff have with the children's parents, who are quite often working mothers.

The study showed that the role that nursery workers take on in the care, nurturance, regulation and 'love' of other people's children places them in a highly precarious position.

The childcarers had to contend with often highly emotionally-charged relationships with mothers, including professional, middle-class mothers, some of whom became resentful and frustrated in their own attempts to achieve a mythical 'work-life balance'.

The childcarers also had to negotiate implicit assumptions of ill intent and an air of suspicion (which is further amplified for male childcarers), while at the same time trying to maintain 'professional' boundaries with children's parents.

A nursery worker, it seems, must be caring but not loving, nurturing but not motherly, professional but not austere - a complicated juggling act to perform.

The research indicates that parents' expectations of their child's nursery and key person vary widely and are influenced by social class, 'race' and stereotypical assumptions.

Ultimately, expectations about the type and level of professionalism of nursery workers depended upon the attitudes and opinions of the individual parent/mother.


The research indicates that powerful public notions about 'being professional', coupled with parental expectations about the role of nursery staff in a child's life, can undermine childcarers' efforts to be professional in particular ways - ways that are instinctive and intrinsic to nurturing and regulating young children.

How nursery workers are viewed is in large part based upon partial and subjective experiences of parents, professionals working in related occupations, policy-makers and the media.

This study has shown that, where conditions exist for nursery workers to perform expertise and to form a legitimate part of frameworks for children's services, they come to believe in their professional capabilities. Furthermore, they become active in promoting and sustaining an alternative form of professionalism, one that is informed by and founded upon being emotional.

Also worth noting is that one of the key factors underpinning staff morale and job satisfaction for nursery workers in the study was the extremely high value that they placed on engaging with the children in their care on an emotional level.

Rather than dismissing or denying the emotional aspects of doing nursery work (well), the findings of the study would indicate that opportunities to acknowledge, accept, embrace and promote the affective aspects of the work are key to understanding what professionalism does or should look like in the nursery context.

Jayne Osgood is senior research fellow at Institute for Policy Studies in Education, London Metropolitan University


Delia: 'It can't be like mothering; we will always be doing it differently because we have a group of children and they have just one. Children have to wait for things in a nursery, they can't scream for an instant reaction, we can't whip them up and smother them in kisses and cuddles. We have more than one thing to do at any one time - we have to change a nappy, feed another baby, administer another child's medication; it's just a totally different situation. But that said, there is ... not maternal instinct, but you look after them according to their parent's wishes ... so in a sense you can be extending what mum does at home. But you are not a substitute mother, it is just not possible.'

Gazala: 'It (nursery work) always seemed to me something natural that women do. It wasn't a profession in my eyes - not before I came into it. I couldn't understand why anybody who wasn't a mum would want to work with very young children. Why would it be of interest to them? How could they know what to do? But now, with 13 or more years of experience and training, qualifications under my belt, I see things differently and can fully appreciate how specialised good-quality nursery care is and how totally unlike mothering it is. It is about boundaries and expert knowledge - working with parents, not replicating what they do.'

Ysabelle: 'What you do at home with your own child and what you do in a nursery is completely different. It could maybe help a little bit, but in here you interact with children in a particular way - not a motherly way. Of course, you would be emotionally attached to each child, but it is a different kind of relationship because at five o'clock you are leaving to go home. You shut your eyes to it then. You can't really get too touched or you would crumble ... as a professional you step back, and you can see there are many explanations for a child, whereas a parent would not want to see many of those things. Our observations mean that we can be outside of where a parent would be.'

Toni: 'I don't think it's like mothering. You have to work at a professional level, and that involves setting boundaries. I think many people have the perception that nursery work is all lovey-dovey, cuddles and love, and yes you do get that, but then there is the professional aspect which involves setting boundaries and you have to have that, because otherwise you would have staff wanting to take on motherly roles and that is not workable, or appropriate. And what's more, parents can get very upset by that.'

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