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Supporting and motivating your staff team

Leadership is one the most fashionable topics for discussion in early years education and care. When I first started in early years, mostly we focussed on compliance and good management: rotas, ratios, budgeting and organisation. Good baby room practice was all about making sure the toys were regularly sterilised and getting staff deployment right. I remember spending hours as a teacher for three and four-year-olds writing long plans, covering every area of learning, clearly showing what would be happening in the sand area next Tuesday morning. It was all about “good classroom management”. 


Nowadays, we tend to assume that everyone gets these things right. Instead of focussing on management, most books, courses and conferences are all about leadership. We hear about “inspirational” leaders and how they refined their leadership skills, developed their teams and achieved miraculous turnarounds. The “shed of shame” piled high with junk became a beautiful resource base for the children to access. Drab environments were transformed. Unwilling staff became the cheerleaders of best practice. Children who started with below average levels of development are transformed into happy, inquisitive high-achievers ready for school. 

Maybe I sound a bit sarcastic or cynical? I don’t mean to be negative, but I am sceptical. I know that there is a terrific amount of great early years practice around, driven by tremendous passion – and it is often poorly rewarded, in terms of salary and status. The reason I want to sound sceptical is that I think this emphasis on inspirational leadership all too quickly becomes a way that we put huge pressure on ourselves.

If you don’t have one of those big personalities that can enthuse and amuse, do you end up feeling rather inadequate compared to that “inspiring” conference speaker or trainer? I do.

But, in this piece I want to argue that supporting and motivating your team is not about a collection of “leadership skills”. Some of the very best leaders I know are actually rather quiet, low-key people who are most comfortable in the background. But there is one thing which I think the best leaders, of all types, are great at: it’s working together with their teams to develop a clear sense of direction, and then taking the many small steps along the way. As Deborah Ancona and her co-researchers argue, there is nothing wrong with being an “incomplete leader”. No-one has the full set of cards. We need to draw on the skills and abilities of others in our team.

An effective team needs shared aims and objectives 

Agreeing your team’s aims and objectives is important. With a clear sense of shared aims, teams are more likely to feel supported and motivated in their work. This process is best kept relatively simple, and best achieved using straightforward language. The process which is suggested by the Results Based Accountability method is a practical way to begin: you want something that is expressed in a straightforward way and helps you to work together, rather than something that is rousing and poetic, takes months to write and gets relegated to the back of everyone’s minds as soon as it is finished. 

Your aims could be a high-level goal, something which you could never achieve on your own as an early years provider, but which you consider to be a potential inspiration, a catalyst to get your team, parents and other relevant professionals and colleagues working together. For example, in 2010 the Departments for Education and for Health jointly stated that at the end of the EYFS, “children should start school healthy, happy, communicative, sociable, curious, active, and ready and equipped for the next phase of life and learning”.   An aim like this is something which you could cite when talking with parents, when planning a joint piece of work with health visitors, or when talking to the parks and leisure department about the need for local play areas for young children or swimming sessions for under-fives. You could refer to it at the beginning of a training day or another key time when you have your whole team together and you want to remind everyone of the bigger picture. Of course, this statement needs to be something which you develop, create and own together: the example cited is only a starting point, to give you an idea.

On the other hand, your objectives should set out what you can achieve, or make progress towards, as a team. Your objectives will be revisited more often, and may be revised in the light of changing circumstances. They can inform, at the top level, your Improvement Plan. 

The example below shows how an early years team in a primary school with a nursery and reception class used an approach modified from Results Based Accountability to begin thinking about their objectives.

Case study: how an early years team developed and articulated their shared core purpose

Practitioners worked in pairs; the whole process took less than an hour, and they were encouraged to use post-it notes and jot down their top three ideas after brainstorming. The rule was, that for every statement jotted down, there had to be to measure or a way to evaluate how well the early years team was doing: otherwise these would just be fine words.

QuestionWhat do we want to make better, for children and their parents, through our work as an early years team?

Team suggestions:

  • Give children the best possible start.
  • Happy time in nursery.
  • Help children develop their early communication.
  • Confidence for children.
  • Healthy children who enjoy being outdoors.
  • Give children a chance to develop their creativity and individual ways of learning.
  • Help the most disadvantaged.
  • Fully include children with special needs and disabilities.
  • Involve parents in their children’s learning.
  • Welcome every parent.
  • Children will be ready for school, good transitions, extra help to start reception where it is needed. 

The manager took this short set of notes away and developed a rough statement of the setting’s objectives, using bullet points:

  • Help children to develop:

                    - their early communication

                    - positive relationships and confidence

                    - ability to make healthy choices

  • Encourage a real partnership with parents, sharing and discussing knowledge about the child and ways to help the child’s learning and wellbeing
  • Include children with special needs and disabilities
  • Offer learning outdoors and off-site frequently and regularly
  • Help the most disadvantaged children to make accelerated progress in their learning, to narrow the gap between them and the rest
  • Promote equality and fairness
  • Support each child and family through the process of transition, so children make a confident and happy start at school

At the next meeting, the team worked from these notes and developed an overall vision statement:

What happens early, matters for a lifetime.

We are here to help every child have a happy and healthy early childhood. We want every child to start school communicative, sociable, curious, active, and ready and equipped for the next phase of life and learning.

We offer provision which is effective for young children and their families, according to the best research: a play-based curriculum with a strong focus on early communication and positive relationships, and help for children to learn about making healthy choices.

We work in partnership with families and other professionals to support the development of our local community.

We support every child as an individual. We help every child to grow up feeling confident about their own identity, in a spirit of friendship, understanding fairness and the rights of others, valuing diversity, and ready to be a British citizen.

We are inclusive and we believe that it is good for everyone when children with disabilities and special needs go to their local early years setting.

We value parental engagement in children’s learning and recognise that parents and carers are the most important people in a child’s life. We can only offer the best for every child if we can work together, in a spirit of partnership.

To enrich children's learning, we are committed to learning outdoors and in the wider community, providing regular and frequent educational visits and off-site experiences.

A process like this will involve handling disagreements, making compromises, and being disciplined about making sure that a realistic set of objectives are generated which can be measured or evaluated. But by having clear objectives and being able to track progress, teams can gain something wonderful: a sense of working together to a common purpose, and making life better for children and their families.

This is how teams gain their energy and resilience: it is far more important than any number of motivational speeches or team-bonding away days.

The importance of coaching: the “traditional approaches to managing people simply do not work”

Coaching is a really important topic in its own right, so this section should only be seen as a quick introduction. If you want to know more, there are some excellent books and courses for staff working in schools and early years settings, perhaps most notably Mentoring-coaching: a guide for education professionals (2007) by Roger Pask and Barrie Joy.

Approaches which draw on the practice and theory of coaching begin with the conviction that dialogue is generally a more powerful way of learning than simply “being told”. Clearly, that is not always the case: when you are new in a job, or you are struggling, you may well need someone to tell you what to do, or show you and then help you to copy them. When I need to access a new computer system at work, I do not want extended dialogue with the technician, I want them to show me what to do.

 But, as the researcher Julie Starr has argued, this is a limiting approach to leadership and management: “Traditional approaches to managing people simply do not work. Being directive, i.e. “I tell you what to do and when to do it” inhibits development of the individual over time. Staff continually instructed by overly directive managers do not blossom, they wither. When we tell staff how to do everything, we are actually teaching them to do less for themselves.”

You could adopt more of a coaching style by resisting the urge to solve problems for staff when they come to you, or the desire just to tell staff exactly how you want things done. This could apply to a brief discussion, not just to a longer “coaching session” (which you would need proper training to offer). For example, when a member of staff asks “What should I do about the problem of some of the boys’ behaviour outside?” you could respond with some questions to clarify the issues and to prompt more thinking:

  • “What are the problems you’ve noticed?”
  •  “Do they happen all the time or just some of the time?”
  • “Is there anything different about the times when you don’t have the problems?”
  • “What are your thoughts about what you might do?”

Discussions like this can be limited to just five to ten minutes, and they provide a space for people to think, clarify problems and try out ideas. Overall this can help staff members to become more independent and capable: but it means giving up some of your power to direct activities and find solutions, in favour of creating space for people to try out their own ideas and take the lead themselves in solving a problem or developing practice.

Drawing on coaching approaches will mean that you give staff members more time to talk, and you will spend more time listening. You will be encouraging people to think out loud and to find their own possible solutions to problems, and you will be interested to follow up on how well their plans work out. In doing all this, you will be giving team members more scope to innovate, and to lead with your support, rather than just follow your directions.


As I argued at the start of this piece, we are all “incomplete leaders”. There are examples of leaders who set out a big vision and inspire their teams to follow them. But, more often, the managers of nursery settings and EYFS leads in schools are more like fellow-travellers. They keep a careful eye on the everything they notice, and they listen to others. It isn’t so much that they “motivate” their teams: rather, the team develops its motivation through the satisfaction of achieving great things together.

Julian Grenier
Julian Grenier is the headteacher of Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre in Newham, East London. He is a National Leader of Education. He has a doctorate in education from the UCL Institute of Education, drawing on his research with practitioners working with two-year olds in disadvantaged communities.

Edited by Rebecca

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