How can we support parents and carers as they introduce their baby to the world of the Nursery?
Rebecca Swindells is owner and manager of Blue Door Nursery. Here she explains how staff at Blue Door put themselves in the families’ shoes as they welcome new babies to their setting.
You’ve got to have empathy
Going back to work after having a baby is probably one of the most stressful things I've ever done. I did it 20 years ago and my daily contact with new parents and their very precious babies tells me that the parent experience has not changed. Every week I find myself reassuring parents that we ‘will call them if there is a problem’, ‘will call them if we cannot settle their child within 20 minutes’, ‘will not mind at all if they call us several times during the day to check how their child is doing’. Parents are always apologetic and anxious not to seem a burden to our nursery day. I work hard to make them feel at ease and explain that reassuring them about their child is literally what we do.
Thinking about childcare
During maternity leave, expectant mums and dads become part of a new group thrown together through circumstance. In this group, ‘pre-pregnancy’ lives are quickly forgotten. At ante-natal classes, expectant parents support and cajole each other through the shared, new experiences. In my own maternity group, there was a beach cafe owner, an IT entrepreneur, 2 teachers and a BBC foreign correspondent. We were an eclectic mix of professional confidence, practical expertise and academic prowess, and we all shared the same trepidation of being first-time parents. Then, 6 months after the safe arrival of all our babies and with our precious firstborns safely tucked in their 3-wheel pushchairs (quite the thing at the time) we were all levelled in our experience of dealing with the world of ‘going back to work.’
Having gone through many ‘firsts’ together we began to turn our thoughts to how we would return to work. How would we know what to do? Should we get a childminder? What was the difference between a childminder and a nanny? Could we afford a nanny? What was a nanny-share? Would a full day care nursery be better? Should we even be thinking of going back to work? In discussing our options, we agreed that however confident we felt in our pre-baby life, we were stepping into territory that felt very much unknown. Now, 20 years later, it is that sense of the ‘unknown’ that I keep in mind when I welcome prospective families and their babies to our nursery.
First impressions count
From the moment we receive the first knock on the door, the email, or the phone call, we work hard to show empathy and understanding. Interestingly, many of the queries come via email, late at night – the time when parents finally get a little time to think about what they are going to need to enable them to get back to work. My manager and I take it in turns to answer these late-night enquiries. For me, it’s important that they are answered promptly and helpfully - often I don’t know the answer (I don’t have our availability system at hand, at home) but it’s still easy to acknowledge the enquiry answering in broad terms questions of cost, availability and procedures for looking round. These personal touches help parents feel valued and supported, they get the parent partnerships off to a very good start (not to mention doing no harm at all to your reputation around the local parents and baby groups!).
What am I looking at?
When parents come to look round the nursery there are often a lot of unanswered questions. Conversations about the availability of days and times often include a lot of “well I don't really know yet” and “I'm not actually sure what I want / need”. In our area, frequently the shortfall of baby spaces necessitates the booking of nursery places well before employers have confirmed back to work schedules. This big ‘unknown’ can make it even more tricky for new parents to make plans. We don’t want to add to their burden so we try to be as flexible as we can and suggest that parents reserve the maximum number of sessions they will need to ensure availability in the early stages. We then reduce them down as plans take shape and work patterns become clearer. For me, this small adjustment in our working practices makes a huge difference to families. Having shown many hundreds of parents round our nursery I can confidently say that first time parents always say, “we don't really know what we're looking at!” My answer to this is always the same and is based on personal experience…choosing a nursery is like choosing a house: visit lots, don't just look them up on the internet. Talk to the staff when you get there. Look at what the children are playing with and how they are playing. You will visit one and you'll just know. There is definitely a feeling that you get when you find the right nursery.
Can little Eliza start next Tuesday?
The initial queries and questions from parents are generally predictable – What spaces do you have? How much does it cost? What do I need to provide? When can I come and look round.? Sometimes however, we have to deal with the challenging situation of a last-minute sign up for the parent who suddenly realises they need a nursery place. This might be due to a previous arrangement falling through, a relocation post childbirth, a sudden employment opportunity that is not to be missed. These parents can be tricky to manage as we have to work hard to shift their mind set from what they need, to what their child needs. We always take time and show patience as we explain how our settling policy works and how it is deeply rooted in our understanding of attachment theory. I explain to parents that the settling process can take anything from a week to a couple of months – it just depends on how the baby feels and how much effort they, the parents, are prepared to make. Our settling sessions follow the same pattern irrespective of the age of the child and irrespective of what the parent tells us about them. Parents often tell us that their child is quite used to being ‘left’ to play with other adults (usually family members) – sometimes that can mean that children are wary when they meet new adults (in case it is a precursor to their parent going somewhere). At other times, of course, this means that the child is super-relaxed and keen to engage with any adults who show interest and excitement in being with them. We are always guided by what the child is showing us in their behaviour and dispositions as well as by what we are told by their parents. Having a fixed settling pattern which can be truncated or elongated but not changed helps staff feel confident that they are supporting a child in a ‘process’ which is taken at their pace – there is not a time limit.
How do we settle?
1. Parent or carer attends nursery with their child for ‘stay and play’ sessions. These last ½ hour each and can happen every day if the start date is fixed and ‘soon’. Otherwise we suggest 2 or 3 sessions a week for a couple of weeks. These sessions are crucial for the child as they get used to the sensory experience of being at nursery – the noises, the sounds, the smells. They get used to the other children in the room, the staff who work alongside them, the toys and resources that they can explore and the routines that we follow. For the parent, they too are learning the routines and getting to know the staff. This is really important once the child has started nursery – for a parent, being able to think ‘oh, it’s 10 o' clock, they’ll be having their snack about now’ when they are at work gives the reassurance and the confidence they need to get on with their day. With Bowlby’s attachment theories1 in mind the child needs to see the parent growing in confidence during the ‘stay and play’ sessions to enable them to begin to be able to develop attachments to the nursery staff themselves. If the parent is anxious and unsettled the child feels guarded and watchful – looking out for whatever it is that has made their parent feel so uneasy. Over the course of the ‘stay and play’ sessions we find that parents relax, eventually encouraging their children to move away from them and play, secure in the knowledge that they are ‘right there’ and there is no expectation that they will be leaving them.
2. After a few ‘stay and play’ sessions our experience is that children are excited to be at nursery and are keen to go off and explore. During the ‘stay and play’ sessions staff will have noted favourite games, toys, soothing techniques etc and will have them ready to encourage the child to feel at ease quickly. Once the child begins to play away from their parent, we ask the parent to leave the room. At our nursery we have provided a quiet space (summer house in the garden) where parents can have a cup of tea and wait for their child. We don’t want the parent to leave our premises – if their child becomes upset we want them to be very swiftly ‘on hand’ to soothe and reassure – we don’t want an extended period of upset to ‘undo’ the good work of the ‘stay and play’ sessions.
3. When both staff and parents feel confident, we have a session when the parent actually leaves the premises for an hour. This is much more about the parent than the child. They can practise leaving their child behind for a short while. It can be very emotional, but we always reassure them that we will call if there is a problem.
We will always repeat sessions, go back a stage if we need to and listen to how everyone (the child, the parent, the nursery staff) is feeling about the child’s progress towards starting nursery. Not until everyone is happy will we start – we still expect some transition tears and perhaps some curtailed sessions during the first weeks. We offer really short sessions to begin with if that’s what the child needs. They might be booked in for a full morning or a whole day, but if after 3 hours they have had enough then they need to go home – we don’t want to undo all our good settling work! Every year there are one or two children who take longer to settle, but by investing time and energy in both the child and the family it is easier to work through difficulties and emotional upset together.
As I write this, it is World Mental Health Day. Since the Early Years Alliance ‘Minds Matter’ 2 report in 2018 the importance of staff wellbeing has quite properly been emphasised. In the new Education Inspection Framework3 staff wellbeing is evaluated as part of the judgement on leadership and management. In my view, the care and consideration managers have for their teams and the teams for each other, is a critical part of supporting this shared sense of wellbeing at work. In our nursery this summer we have successfully settled 21 children, most of whom are under 2. This puts a lot of pressure on staff who work hard to build relationships with both the new child and their families, whilst still maintaining routine and quality experiences for the children who are already attending nursery. It can be exhausting for staff, unsettling for children and emotionally fraught for parents and carers. We foster a culture of empathy to help everyone understand how others are feeling. In our staff meetings we remind staff to look after each other, for example, to ask if someone needs a break when a new child has been ‘full on’ for a while. If we don’t support each other, we can’t hope to support the children and families in our care.
1. Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss. Pimlico; New Ed edition (3 July 1997)
2. https://www.eyalliance.org.uk/sites/default/files/minds-matter-report-.pdf (Accessed 10/10/19)
Edited by Jules