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Practitioner Well-Being: In Practice

Our childhood years are often considered to be our happiest. As early years professionals we get to experience the joy twice; in actuality and later on, by proxy.  Yet, nearly two-thirds of practitioners report they are suffering from work-related stress or mental health issues.

 

In my article, Practitioner Well–Being: In Theory, I identified (and explored the reasons for) a drop in the morale of my team and the ensuing need to develop a sustainable framework to support our well-being. Further research revealed a general feeling of low well-being and high stress among workers across the whole early years sector. Evidently, in the business of providing quality care for our children we had not made time to care for ourselves, nurture individual voices and hear one-another’s stories.

 

As well as the problems which are idiosyncratic to individual settings, Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) also remains a poor relation within the hierarchy of national education. In conjunction with the apparent relaxation of quality protecting government policies, changes have also been made to the level of funding for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). The Special Educational Needs Inclusion Fund has led to nurseries reporting insurmountable difficulties in meeting the needs of very young, vulnerable children who have special needs. Lack of support has had a detrimental impact on children and staff, causing ‘tremendous stress’ and practitioners ‘handing in their notice’ (Gaunt 2018).

 

In response, I believe there is an increasing need for organisations to make time to hear the viewpoints of their teams; what Mezirow and Taylor call a ‘narration of personal experience’ or ‘facilitated storytelling.’ Thinking of my team’s well-being, I wondered what their stories are and whether they are given a chance to tell them.

 

Identifying the Framework

We decided to use our staff meeting time to give the team a chance to discuss issues which affected their well-being at work. When researching practitioner well-being it became apparent that we were not looking for a cure - prevention would be more beneficial. We needed to develop a support model, or framework, for these meetings which would be both financially and practically sustainable.

 

I felt it was important to aim for obtaining a balance of time spent on action and reflection and challenge and containment. Through further research, I was able to identify the coaching model as most likely to achieve the desired outcome, in the desired way. This would also enable me to work from within the team, as opposed to from the top down. The GROUP (Brown and Grant 2010) coaching model structured our discussions and helped us to consider the experiences of others. The skills required to coach a team are to have the ability to:

  •   listen to people
  •   empathise with others
  •   impart knowledge
  •   know how to ask questions.

 

These coaching sessions would be about levelling the field, drawing out people’s hidden skills ‘which invariably finds a way to solve a problem previously thought unsolvable’ (Sullivan in Kinder et al. 2008, p.290). By definition, coaching is: ‘A supportive relationship in which the coach serves as a thinking partner to the coachee.’ (Warren 2015).

 

Identifying the themes.

To determine what well-being looked like for the team I asked my colleagues: What constitutes a happy working environment? This unearthed some common themes.

 

 

image.png

                                                                                                                                                                   (Fig. 1)

 

The majority of the team cited their environment, training opportunities and flexibility within the working day as important factors for high well-being and job satisfaction. Nearly everyone put being able to receive regular, constructive feedback and develop good working relationships as a high priority. Finally, the whole group agreed that a healthy balance for action and reflection was paramount for a happy team. All we needed to do now was to unpick each theme and get to the essence of what is required to sustain staff well-being.  I shared the themes (shown in fig.1) with the team and we agreed to use them to frame each of our staff meetings, using the coaching model.

 

Developing the framework.

I devised a template to use during the meetings to enable me to take notes and to make sure we stuck to the agreed framework (fig.2).

 

Theme:

Date:

Goal

What do we want to achieve?

 

Reality

What is happening at the moment?

What is going well?

What is not so successful?

 

Options

What are our ideas to affect change?

 

Understanding

Others

How will affect colleagues, the children, the families, other services?

 

Perform

What are our action points and what is the time frame?

 

     

(Fig.2 

I used each section to provoke discussion (as noted on the chart in fig.2). The general remit of each meeting was to agree on what we wanted to achieve from the session, establish what was happening at the moment, discuss ideas to implement change, consider who it will affect and draw up an action plan. Notes taken within this format were put in the reflective journal for staff to read and validate. The action plans utilise suggestions, note skill-sets, motivate action, encourage further discussion and identify training needs (see fig.3).

 

Theme: Training

Date: 2019

Goal

What do we want to achieve?

For staff well-being the team stated they would like to see:

More ongoing ‘enriching and inspiring’ training opportunities. To look at outside and in-house opportunities to make this possible.

 

Reality

What is happening at the moment?

What is going well?

What is not so successful?

At the moment staff feel ‘In a rut and stale.’ We are only accessing statutory training and not ‘enrichment’ training. Is this because of funding and time constraints? Can we manipulate this at all?  Staff are ‘uninspired’ and feel they are ‘in a bubble, out of touch with other peoples’ practice and ideas.’

Options

What are our ideas to affect change?

We discussed using the training opportunities from the council more regularly and to celebrate our skill-sets with in-house training and activity programmes. Staff would like to see more regular training and more choices – connected to their own interests. Some in-house training needs identified were: generating a basic vocab in our families’ languages, managing behaviour, core books/songs, equalities.

Understanding

Others

How will affect colleagues, the children, the families, other services?

This can have a knock-on effect, leaving the team short when someone is out training. Children and families may miss their key person if they were on a course, but the rest of the key group can help. But the feeling was that the benefits generally out-weighed this. 

Perform

What are our action points and what is the time frame?

Management to make available the council training booklet and for people to choose one they are interested in. To look at the possibility of visiting other nurseries on a study day – e.g. Chelsea Open Air. To look at devising in-house training using existing skill sets. 

     

(Fig.3)

 

During the meetings I reflect my colleagues’ words back to make sure I understand their meaning and to illustrate my engagement, for example: “So to clarify - you are saying that we have too many transition times during a session?” I use coaching style, open ended questions, for example: “How does receiving feedback from a colleague make you feel?” or “What could be put in place to make lunchtimes less hectic?” instead of “Is it really uncomfortable receiving feedback from a colleague?” or “How about splitting the group at lunchtimes to make it less hectic.” These subtle differences help my colleagues to discover and present their own opinions and suggestions.

 

Team Feedback (direct quotes shown in speech marks).

The over-riding opinions of the staff team seem to consider the structured format and how it kept us focussed. One colleague pointed out: “As a team, we tend to go off subject, so it’s better to have someone leading it and keeping to a framework.” Another colleague backed this up saying: “We had to be more ‘boundaried’ about our thoughts which kept us on topic.” Themed meetings with the coaching framework “have been useful to garner in-depth discussions in a way that is not really possible in usual meetings.”

 

Staff see the coaching sessions as “a good way to see different viewpoints of the same subject” and called the process “more consultative.” Colleagues also feel the meetings are a “brilliant format for sparking discussions and involving everyone.” It is important that team coaching sessions enable people to generate new thinking together and they leave ‘more focussed, energised and connected’ than before they turned up (Hawkins 2017, p.6).

 

Another important part of the process to emerge is the ‘so what’ element. For a support model to be authentic and for people to invest in it, there must be an outcome. “I like the action plans because sometimes what we agree to do doesn’t match what we actually do, and it needs monitoring.” Britton (2013, p.33) affirms this by high-lighting the importance of ‘letting the group do the work in finalising the action plan.’ She believes it is a key component in the sustainability of the coaching model.

 

The physical aspect of being in a group situation is also appreciated and beneficial. “It’s a rare opportunity to be together as a whole group, getting an actual, physical feeling of being present within the team.” Thornton (2016, p.11) believes mutual learning can only happen face to face, the ‘wealth of non-verbal communication’ (seeing and reading body language) is paramount. Another team member added: “It helps me to feel more included in the team because I am part-time.”

 

As far as celebrating individual skills and capabilities, my team think the coaching sessions “shift the focus from being trained to looking inwards at our existing expertise and experience.” Thornton (2016, p.6) verifies this by stating:

'The opportunities for learning are multiplied by the number of different individuals in the coaching relationship since everyone brings different skills and experience to the table.'

 

When coaching a team of people you need to remain aware of individual insecurities and eccentricities, finding the balance between containing and challenging (or encouraging). My colleagues illustrated sensitivities in this area. “It has helped me to begin discussions on situations which I wasn’t sure how to voice before and to put forward ideas.” This team member went on to say: “The positive feedback from my team is really motivating and has made me want to do more to boost my confidence.”

 

Benne and Sheats (1948) believe that teams consist of different roles, each one integral to achieving an agreed project outcome. Throughout the process and individual reflections, I could see evidence of my colleagues beginning to understand their individual worth within the team and take ownership of their roles. “It is good to take a problem we have within our working day and to be able to all have a say in what it feels like from our individual points of view.” Colleagues state they “feel a sense of empowerment being involved in the decision-making process” and have a platform to share and debate ideas.”

 

Some of the team report having the “confidence to speak out in a group but realise others might not.” One member of staff talked about waiting for others to bring up certain issues because they felt they weren’t yet able to: “And when I didn’t, and the issue went unresolved, I wish I had spoken up. Maybe I will feel more able to do this when I am more comfortable with the process.”

 

I feel coaching sessions alone may not be enough to support team well-being. The model has a place alongside our shared reflective journal, formal and informal one-to-one discussions, staff development reviews and usual staff (and key group) meetings in building a culture of communication and feedback, consequently supporting team happiness. Coaching sessions are just one piece of a larger jigsaw; helping to build an overall picture of effective communication (fig.4) which is the essence of team well-being.

 

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(Fig.4)

 

To conclude, I turned to the words of Gloria Steinem; author, feminist and advocate for gender equality:

How we keep our spirits up is being together and listening to each other’s stories, obeying simple rules of democracy…. if you have more power than most, remember to listen as much as you talk, and if you have less power, then talk as much as you listen (2017).


Emma Cook
Emma Cook, MA, is an early years educator at One World Nursery in Brighton

Edited by Jules




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