The key person approach: Firmly attached

The 'key person' approach to nursery care needs greater recognition, says Peter Elfer, as he explains its importance for very young children

The 'key person' approach to nursery care needs greater recognition, says Peter Elfer, as he explains its importance for very young children

Last December, Elinor Goldschmied celebrated her 90th birthday. Elinor has had a pioneering influence on work with babies and toddlers. Many readers will be familiar with her publications. People Under Three, written with Sonia Jackson, documents the details of good nursery practice and is now something of a classic. Communication Between Babies in their First Year, produced with Dorothy Selleck, places before us the stunning possibilities of babies' own interactive communications. Children's heuristic play is illustrated in video material produced with Anita Hughes. At the heart of these works lie what I think are Elinor Goldschmied's two pioneering contributions, the 'treasure basket' and the key person approach.

So there was cause for double celebration last year when the DfEE showed in the draft national care standards that it too had been thinking about the role of key persons. The draft reads, '...every child is allocated to a member of staff within their keygroup who is their key person and is mainly responsible for their well being on a daily basis...'

In this article, partly by way of a tribute to Elinor, partly as an open message to nursery staff and partly as advice to the new Early Years Directorate at Ofsted, I want to argue for greater recognition of what the key person approach could mean in nurseries. I believe we owe it to nursery staff to acknowledge how demanding and complex their work with very young children is, and what being and becoming a key person might involve.

Telling it like it is
For the past six years, Dorothy Selleck and I have been observing staff-child interactions in nurseries and talking with staff about their professional relationships with babies and toddlers. In particular, we asked staff what they think is most important about these relationships.

Nursery nurses described very vividly the deep feelings that could be evoked by being completely responsible for the care of such young children for a large part of the day. What was really so striking about these interviews, though, was how unsure many staff felt about how to manage these powerfully personal feelings within a professional role.

We heard comments such as, 'I don't know if this is going to sound unprofessional - it's almost like being another mother, especially for little Linda. Things a mother would do like cuddles and making them feel secure - it's love. It's not what you learn in college, but it is love. Of course officially they are not your babies but... oh, I don't know, it's really hard.'

Some practitioners, when shown this quotation, thought this member of staff must be inexperienced. She was not inexperienced. Our observations showed her to be a highly sensitive and responsive practitioner. Maybe though she touched a nerve by naming the immensely difficult challenge that nursery staff face each day in balancing professional detachment with the sensitive and responsive care they want to give to children.

Balancing act
What do staff think about how this balance should be struck? How 'attached' to a member of staff should a child be allowed to feel, and how much professional detachment is too much? In one nursery, staff were very concerned at the angry and 'clingy' behaviour of a two-year-old who was reacting to the absence of a member of staff who was away on holiday. Was this child's reaction a positive sign of her relationship with the absent person, or a negative sign? It is difficult to know without knowing a bit more about the patterns of this child's relationships. However, while some staff took the child's reaction as a clearly negative sign and thought such attachment to the member of staff was not appropriate, others were surprised at their colleagues' reactions and thought it would be worrying if children did not react when a 'special' member of staff was away.

These basic differences of view were common. They surprised not only us but often other members of the nursery team too. It was obvious that many teams had never had the chance to really talk together about the details of the professional relationships they had with children.

Job description
One way this showed itself was the way staff decided who should care for which child, and whether this could or should be any member of the team or whether particular members of staff should work with particular children.

Most nurseries caring for children under three years of age now have some system of staff organisation they call the key person or key worker system.

However, when we asked what the purpose of these systems was, different people, sometimes even within the same team, gave different answers, summarised as follows:

  • Somebody in an administrative or liaison role; their job is to make sure everyone in the nursery is aware of important background information about the child.

  • Somebody who will make a special relationship with a child to help them settle in, perhaps over the first two weeks; but after that, the child would be encouraged to relate to a wider group of adults.

  • Somebody mainly for parents, a named person for them to contact.

  • Somebody who will make an on-going special relationship with a child, certainly to help them settle in, but in the longer term too.

Most staff accepted the first three of these roles, but there was much less agreement about the fourth. The fears staff expressed were that such a role might lead to favouritism, might undermine relationships at home or make parents feel jealous and excluded, and would set children up for painful loss when they, or the member of staff, had to move on. Juliet Hopkins, in her account of weekly discussions with nursery staff over a six-month period, reported similar anxieties (1988).

What matters most
Since the second world war, partly because of the impact of attachment theory, public discussion of childcare has been dominated by anxieties that nurseries may be harmful for young children. Some of this anxiety remains. However, overall, the evidence shows that good-quality nursery care is not harmful to infant development and may bring many benefits to children and families. Ann Mooney and Tony Munton (1997) conclude that 'good quality' means care that is 'responsive, sensitive and stable'.

How can staff-child relationships in nursery be organised to achieve this? Young children are extremely sensitive to small differences in routines and in the way they are handled and spoken to. Even we adults, with our coping skills and emotional maturity, might struggle to cope with apparently quite small changes in our working relationships. We rely on people responding to us and behaving in very specific and predictable ways. Why should young children be any different? If they are handled by lots of different people who touch them and hold them and speak to them in subtly varied ways, much of their energy will go on coping with this. Less emotional energy will then be available for them to enjoy and experiment with, say, their peers and things around them.

The effect of nursery relationships on home relationships is another concern nursey staff have expressed. It is as if attachment and affection are seen as fixed quantities and if there is more in the nursery, there is bound to be less at home. Yet current research in the United States is beginning to show that the opposite may be true. Children who have some difficulty in making attachments at home may be helped to respond and trust home attachments better where they have a good experience of being allowed to form attachments in nursery (NICHD, 1997, see references). The message seems to be that, far from undermining attachments at home, nursery attachments may actually assist home attachments.

Some practitioners may argue that the advantage of nursery care is the variety of relationships children can experience, so why limit children to relationships with only one or two members of staff? But this is to misunderstand attachment behaviour. Children who feel confident and trusting about their relationship with one or two key people in nursery are much more likely to explore and make relationships with others. On the other hand, it is the children who feel anxious that they are not sufficiently being noticed or thought about by some key person in the nursery who may spend their time and energies seeking to make such an attachment or simply struggling to get themselves through the day, rather than exploring.

Defining the key person
The key person approach might be defined as a way of working in nurseries in which the whole focus and organisation is to enable and support close attachments between individual children and individual nursery staff. The key person approach is an individual and reciprocal commitment between a member of staff and a family. Such a way of working is so different from the first three roles described - for liaison, settling in, or parental contact - that it needs a distinctive name to ensure a clear focus on what is involved.

For this reason, it may be helpful to use the term key person when the intention is precisely to provide one or two individual people who will allow themselves to be the key in the life of a particular child while she or he is at nursery. The term 'key worker' may then be reserved for nursery roles that are more to do with liaison and co-ordination. The roles of key person and key worker overlap, but they are not the same.

The details will vary from nursery to nursery, but these four building blocks are essentials.

Clear starting points
Staff need, and are entitled to, clear, evidence-based landmarks by which they can think about and decide on the day-to-day details of their professional relationships with children. They need a clear definition of the key person approach, how it differs from key worker roles, and the importance of both.

They need to know about the importance of responsive, sensitive and consistent care, and understand that children's attachment in nursery will not undermine attachments at home and may even help them. And they need to know that the key person approach does not mean they must be available to their key children all the time - not even parents can do this!

Professional discussion
However clear the starting points, the thoughts and feelings of staff members about their relationships with various children will not be straightforward. In many nurseries, finding time to meet to discuss practice issues is difficult.

Yet regular time is needed for staff groups to think about and discuss their interactions with children. Some of this can happen while working with children, but that is not enough. Leadership is needed from someone who can help to make what may feel quite personal and heartfelt discussions more manageable.

Involve parents
It was not only staff who told us of conflicting feelings about nursery relationships. Parents too spoke of their longing for their child to be special to someone in nursery and at the same time, their fear of the child becoming too special to that person. One way to cope with these contradictory desires is for parents to be kept closely informed about their child's day with the key person. Parents cannot be present during the day but the key person can make them feel as if they were, so they do not have to be excluded from the details and intimacies of their child's day away from them.

Staff support and mentoring
Nursery staff who say that allowing children to become attached simply sets them up for painful feelings when it comes time to move on, do have a point.

Children who feel particularly thought-about are likely to become more demanding of their key person and more angry and upset when she is not there.

It takes great skill to work in a way that allows emotional closeness but also maintains professional detachment. There is no easy formula to say how close is too close and how detached is too detached. That is why it is best to have a system of mentoring by someone with the time and experience to carry out this role.

Nursery staff working with the youngest of children undertake the most complex of tasks. We can assist them in the immensely difficult work they do by acknowledging its complexity and helping to make the purpose and boundaries of professional relationships clearer.

With thanks to Patience MacGregor, Dorothy Selleck and Judy Stevenson for comments on this article.
Peter Elfer is senior lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at the University of Surrey, Roehampton.


  • Hopkins, J (1988), 'Facilitating the development of intimacy between nurses and infants in day nurseries', in Early Child Development and Care, 33, p99-111

  • Mooney, A and Munton, A (1997), Research and Policy in Early Childhood Services: Time for a New Agenda. (Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education)

  • National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network (1997), 'The Effect of Infant Childcare on Infant-Mother Attachment Security: Results of the NICHD Study of Early Childcare', in Child Development, 68, No. 5, p860-879

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