Meeting the needs of children is the single subject that receives the most recommendations and actions each term in the Ofsted reports I have seen. The idea is scattered liberally through articles, in Ofsted reports and on training courses, but what are we actually talking about when we say those words?
Our ethos, the construction of our learning environment, our ability to build respectful relationships with children and their families, our ability to tune into children and our skill in helping children to manage their own feelings and behaviour…these all play a part in meeting children’s needs. To do these things well, staff must feel good.
A safe space
Fiona Holiday, managing director of Connection Works, a training consultancy, would say that when we’re trying to meet the needs of our children, we have to consider two fundamental questions when we enter a room: ‘Am I safe here?’ and ‘Do I matter here?’. Everything else (for example, playing and exploring, being creative and thinking critically) grows out of this knowledge – which is based not only on what we as adults say or do, but also how we are.
Young children base their assessment of whether an environment is safe on a whole range of things: past experiences and also an unconscious sense of how the adults in that space are operating. They pick up on tiny clues in body posture, facial expression and tone of voice, they notice the warmth in relationships and they find out if their feelings, thoughts and ideas matter in the way adults respond to them. Everything we do and say potentially influences a child’s perception of themselves, the security of their relationship with us (and others) and the way they interact with the environments we provide. It makes sense that responding to those fundamental questions with authenticity is difficult for practitioners if the culture and ethos of a setting isn’t answering those same questions for the staff. Those of us in leadership positions need to ask ourselves: Do we honestly know if our staff feel safe? And how do we show each staff member they matter?
Managing staff is hugely rewarding, but it also comes with its challenges, some of which stem from our ability to make staff feel safe, to help them understand that they matter and that what they do makes a difference to children’s lives.
In many settings, practitioners don’t feel safe. They worry about making mistakes or find it hard to speak up about the things they find difficult; some feel intimidated by practitioners who know more, ‘can do it better’ and have been there longer, or maybe they lack the confidence to be creative.
This is often picked up in Ofsted reports as a need to:
ensure staff use observation and assessment to accurately identify where children are in their learning and what they need to learn next
improve the quality of teaching, so that all staff engage children in activities that provide an appropriate level of challenge
improve staff management of the learning environment to ensure children are not disrupted and distracted in their learning
gain more detailed information from parents to help identify children’s developmental starting points, and use this information to more accurately plan activities and experiences from the outset.
Effective leaders and managers recognise that no matter what we think is in place to support our staff teams, the perception of some may be very different. There is therefore a need to push our own feelings and thoughts to one side to do something to change that perception.
It’s a little like running a training session. I can share information, tools and strategies with the group, but if I don’t check out the understanding of those attending, I won’t know whether my perception of what I’ve shared is what my delegates are taking away with them. So how could we check if staff have the support they need to be effective in their role? What can we do to understand whether they feel safe?
A key solution is the need to develop genuine and authentic relationships with those we work with. Managers need to create opportunities for staff to develop relationships that have enough depth to foster trust and mutual respect. Teambuilding is an essential part of helping a group of individuals to establish deeper relationships, yet it is an area many managers see as a frivolous waste of time and money.
It doesn’t have to mean crazy days away from your setting in the wilderness, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. In settings where staff teams are given semi-regular opportunities to come together as a group to share an experience, they have developed a deeper level of connection with each other.
As a result, communication is better, solutions to problems become a team effort, peer-on-peer observations feel comfortable because staff know that feedback will be constructive, challenge is welcome and there are healthy (and sometimes heated) debates about practice. Most importantly, there is respect for the opinions of others.
Where staff feel valued and there is a culture of mutual respect, morale is high. Staff play to each other’s strengths and provide support to colleagues in areas that are more challenging, which continues to foster a will to be the best that we can be for our children.
Pennie Akehurst is managing director of Early Years Fundamentals, www.eyfundamentals.org
- Next month’s focus is 'Meeting the needs of children: Am I safe and do I matter?'