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TEC 2 Workshop - The Pursuit of Happiness: Supporting and Sustaining Practitioner Well-being within an Early Years Setting

As part of our second Tapestry Education Conference (TEC 2) held in November 2019, we hosted three table-top discussions. We were joined by members of the Tapestry team to record each discussion. Here, Tapestry’s Olaya introduces us to the workshop led by Emma Cook of One World Nursery, Brighton, which reflected on how to nurture well-being with your staff. 

Emma's overview for the workshop was:

The Pursuit of Happiness: Supporting and Sustaining Practitioner Well-being Within an Early Years Setting

More than ever, it is important that leaders in the early years sector nurture the retention, skills and well-being of their existing workforce. As well as general unrest within the sector, early years practitioners have also faced a period of structural change and uncertainty. Therefore, my MA research looked to discover ways in which team cohesion and well-being could be supported and sustained within my setting – and maybe others, both locally and nationally.


It is the right of the human being to be able to pursue happiness.

The above wasn’t Emma’s opening line, but it certainly stuck with me throughout the entire workshop. In all honesty, it stuck full stop. For the next hour and a bit, I witnessed six women working together to allow each other that pursuit of happiness that is so key not only in Early Years, but all fields of life.

Emma began by giving an insight into the origin of her interest in well-being in the workforce: her MSc dissertation. At the time of choosing her topic, Emma was toying with the idea of writing about children and what they meant to her. During this period, however, the Nursery went through some big organisational changes that put the team cohesion in jeopardy. What had been working as a well-oiled machine, established, known, secure and effective, was facing the uncertainty that can come with change. Emma made the ethical decision of studying team cohesion and how important this is.

Emma’s dissertation started taking form through Pascal and Bertram’s research: ‘Effective Early Learning Project: the Quality of Adult Engagement in Early Childhood Settings in the UK’, Centre for Research in Early Childhood, University College Worcester (1999). In their research, Pascal and Bertram explored the ideas of adult engagement and sensitivity, and talked about the importance of staff well-being, as this has a direct impact on the children’s own happiness. With this premise, Emma looked at happiness in the whole. And then she introduced that beautiful sentence: It is the right of the human being to be able to pursue happiness. And she had all of us in her hand.

Determined to make a change, Emma started making her staff’s well-being a top priority. She could see that in her team, and in Early Years in general, morale was very low. Multiple factors impacted on the well-being of practitioners, so it became Emma’s mission to find out what facilitated her team’s well-being with the determination of promoting what was working and improving what wasn’t. Emma talked about discussing with her team what could support their well-being: mentoring, coaching, supervisions, etc.

Step number one: listen to your team.

The winner was coaching! Emma would (and still does) meet up with her team and they coach together on the topics that most worry them. There are regular well-being check-ups; is this working, what else can I do as an individual, and what can we do as a team? So, at One World Nursery, every three weeks the staff meeting is a coaching meeting. The staff sets the agenda – the environment, training, flexibility, relationships with each other, etc. and Emma coaches them through it. It is about unpicking, Emma explained.

Step number two: unpick.

Emma described her leadership style as one that is done from the centre, not top down. In my head, I pictured a sphere, with Emma in the middle, and the staff orbiting around her, experiencing her support. The pyramid-like management style was changed, and the forces that keep the sphere balanced and spinning are practice and reflection, practice and theory: action and reflection.

The first matter to reflect on was 'what is well-being and how can this be sustained?'image.png

Who is ‘we’? We are the staff.

What is the support? Coaching is.

What did the staff consider 'well-being' to be?

One of the group asked: What were the factors that made the staff choose coaching?

In a nutshell, ‘supervisions’ felt very company-goal heavy. ‘Mentoring’ was a lovely idea but didn’t feel very proactive. ‘Coaching’ had the best of all worlds.

One of the delegates made an interesting point: that the person mentoring is the person with expertise, but coaching gives power to the other staff members to chip in with their own expertise.

Step number three: make sure your staff feel they are heard.

Earlier in the workshop someone had asked Emma how many staff members she coached: twelve staff members currently. Another delegate commented on this being quite a big group to coach.

Emma agreed that when coaching a big group you can lose the individual, but in this case it worked just fine, because they were working towards team cohesion. It was what they needed. And it is from these group meetings and other forms of groupings, such as a reflective journal and a Whatsapp group, that Emma and her team come up with the topics they wish to unpick. At this point, the room fell into a nice chit chat and laughter about random topics – it felt like friends having a coffee.

The delegates were shown the template used by Emma when she coaches. Her first sessions had used the GROW method: Goals, Reality, Options and Ways forward. But the staff asked Where are we here, where are our stakeholders? So Emma tried GROUP instead (what an appropriate name!): Goals, Reality, Option, Understanding others, Performing.

Like everything that is new, it is all about trial and error. The first method didn’t quite fit, so it was changed. Likewise, Emma soon realised that she needed to celebrate the good as well as tackling what needed improving. The reflective practice needed to focus on the positives and look at how to turn the negatives around.

Step number four: praise what works, analyse why it does, and steer the wheel in that direction.

From these meetings, Emma and her team develop actions to take the necessary steps to the end goal. These actions can be short, medium and long term, they might require training or just a change in the way of doing things. Every two weeks Emma checks where they are with each action, and anything that has not been addressed takes priority and is taken to the next coaching session.

The benefits of this approach soon became apparent; the team now has real confidence in the management structure. They know they can speak up when they have doubts, that this will get into an action plan and it will get done. It encourages the staff to be proactive as a group and contribute towards a solution.

Step number five: give your team the tools to make a change.

At this point Adler’s Four Crucial C’s came into discussion. Although designed to apply to children’s development, the group agreed it was a philosophy that could be applied to adults as well:

·       Courage: People need courage to take risks and learn.

·       Connect: People need to feel they connect.

·       Capable: They need to feel that they are competent.

·       Count: They need to feel significant.

The ideas that followed all had the same nucleus: effective communication. Well-being is the end picture of a giant jigsaw with pieces as varied as coaching, key group meetings, informal chats, reflective journals, etc. The Nursery’s unofficial motto, 'effective communication'  is born from this cohesive practice, how to keep your spirits up by getting together and listening to each other’s stories (thank you, Gloria Steinman!).

Emma said: I’ve got a question for you! How do you feel about your team well-being where you are working at the moment?image.png

Silence - and then the silence was broken:

I guess that my case is a bit different, as I don’t really work with a specific group. I work with teams here and there.  

On that, do you think that well-being is compromised in a team that has regular meetings and are together and go through the same things, or do you think it is more personal?

I do. In my role, I’m very independent. We talked earlier about having a voice and being heard. The action plan is about knowing that something is going to happen. As an independent, I have a lot of agency. People in a tighter organisation might feel constraint.

Other delegates joined:

We have a really good manager, very understanding. She has an open-door policy. It is, indeed, about communication. We deal with issues straight away. It is good to get the team’s feedback on things that happen.

Do you feel that every member of the team has a voice? Emma asked.

To be honest, in general I think we all have a good voice. We have a Whatsapp group to share ideas and thoughts. And you feel that you can do that, that you are heard. All well-being impacts on the children, just like if you were to go for coffee and the barista is nice, your experience is so much better! Our children are exposed to great vibes. They are allowed to get messy and wet; they have the liberty to explore because the staff are heard and they give the children the room to learn. It is all about working as a team.

Emma nodded: It sounds like you have built a really strong ethos, so all new people can see it straight away. Having a strong ethos that is established and clear helps with keeping cohesion.

Step number six: build an ethos that is clear and transpires through all actions and that guides your performance.

Emma asked: What about in academia?

Before I answer, I just wanted to say that one of the things that is important as a leader is that really deep sense of responsibility and the recognition that you cannot control. You can only do what you can do, you cannot control everybody, they have to control themselves. All you can do is support them. I’ve had the privilege of developing my own team. I admire my team, which allows my management to flow in an environment of respect and understanding.

Emma made a very interesting note about the importance of managing your own well-being while managing the well-being of others. Once you know where you are, you can help others get to the same point.

Delegates agreed: it is quite challenging sometimes to think about yourself when you feel responsible for the happiness and well-being of a team. Understanding your purpose and value can be very difficult. It is reaffirming to know that you can stand on your own two feet and bring value to what you do.

Step number seven: make sure you prioritise your own well-being.

And here we get to my favourite part. One of the delegates bravely shared a less cohesive image at their setting. And, suddenly, the entire workshop turned around and the delegates teamed up to improve this person’s well-being. What can we do to help you (step one: listen), what could be causing this (step two: unpick), how do you feel about it (step three: make sure they are feeling heard), what do you feel works fine and why does it work (step four: praise what works), what about doing... *insert dozens of great suggestions here* (step five: give tools to make the change),  does your team work under the same premise (step six: ethos) – all of these from people in positions of well-being, from places they could help from.

To respect the intimacy that was carefully built by the people in the workshop, I’m not going to go into any details here. But I will say I saw how thoughtfully and professionally this group were able to share reflection, understanding and experiences.

I saw well-being being taken care of.

You are trying. You seem to be compromising. You can take this approach.

All ideas focused on the key pillar that dominated the discussion: communication. Listening, understanding, viewing the greater picture. I couldn’t help but think of the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset: I am me and my circumstances. Here were a group of people, products of their circumstances, and the knowledge and wisdom born from it was being put into practice, shaping each other’s circumstances one bit at a time. Magical.

I myself come from a working environment that takes care of my well-being. And I can agree, it is about feeling heard, not being judged, allowing me to communicate effectively, making me feel part of something, praising my skills and qualities, helping me improve those weaker points, encouraging me to take risks. It is about connecting with my teammates. It is about cohesion and belonging.

And so I wish to end with:

It is the right of the human being to able to pursue happiness.

FSF Olaya
Olaya joined Tapestry in August 2017, having moved to England from the Basque Country in 2014. After completing her MSc and testing the waters of event management, she found her place among us. She writes tutorials, tests new Tapestry features, but, mainly, she will respond to any and all of your questions, so if you have had a query recently, it is quite likely that you have come across her exotic name (pronounced ‘oh liar’ or ‘Oh-Leia’, depending on your love for Star Wars. She will respond to both), and ‘American Spanglish’ accent if you’ve happened to talk to her on the phone! Olaya is currently translating Tapestry into Spanish, and coordinates and manages all exhibitions, conferences and other events we attend. Multitasking at its best!

Edited by Jules

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