A Unique Child

Key person – The importance of attachment and closeness

  • Key person – The importance of attachment and closeness

How does a key person link to the idea of attachment in early childhood settings? Professor Cathy Nutbrown from the University of Sheffield explains…

What does a key person do?

A ‘key person’ is a member of staff that you ask to work with, and care for, specific children. They will liaise with these children’s parents, forming a triangle of important relationships:

Many settings identify a key person. It’s their role to provide continuity of care for each baby and young child. They also lessen anxiety around separation from their parents (Nutbrown and Page, 2008).

If your setting has adopted a key person approach, the same practitioner will work with the same babies and children each day. They will feed them, change their nappies and interact with them in a close, respectful and dignified manner.

The key person should observe ‘their’ children closely, identifying their wants, needs and interests and meeting them appropriately.

They should also ensure that the views and needs of the child are uppermost throughout their time in the setting. Does the pace of the day suits them? Are important things shared with parents?

Close relationships

Being with warm, responsive adults is vital for young children. These close relationships assist their all-round learning, behaviour and development.

It goes without saying that happy, secure children learn better. Closeness and emotional wellbeing is good for young developing brains.

What’s more, where young children can ‘stay close’ to an adult carer, it’s often easier for them to be separated from their parents.

In fact, experts argue that it is good for babies’ and toddlers’ social development to develop close attachments to several people.

Attachment theory and the key person approach

Attachment is at the core of the ‘key person approach’ promoted by Peter Elfer and colleagues. It places high importance on close and specific relationships between practitioners, children and parents (Elfer et al 2003).

This is not the mother-child attachment that Bowlby promoted in the 1950s. It’s a modern version of attachment theory that promotes closeness between babies and their professional carers.

Attachments between children and their carers have, for years, led some early childhood practitioners to shy away from close attachments with children.

They feared that parents would shun the idea that another person outside the family has a close relationship with their young child.

However, the skilled and sensitive key person can – and should, for the good of the child – allay such fears.

As Anna Gillespie Edwards put it in the National Children’s Bureau’s Relationships and Learning: Caring for Children from Birth to Three: 

“Some practitioners may be anxious about assuming a parental role or even of taking some of the love properly due to the parent.

“It is safe to say that even very young babies will not confuse their carer with their parent and they are more likely to suffer from the lack of a close personal relationship at nursery.”

Examples of key person interactions

Jane was working with three-year-old Allen and four-month-old Naomi. Allen wanted Naomi to hold a set of plastic keys.

Jane gently reminded Allen that Naomi could choose what she played with (she seemed to prefer to suck her soft bunny at the time).

Jane said to Allen, “She can choose; she doesn’t have to play with the one you like. You like to choose, she likes to choose as well.”

Jane knew Allen so well that she was confident that this explanation would help him to understand that babies have opportunities for choice as well as children who were older.

Allen recognised this assertion and went away. He returned with a small selection of toys, which he put at the side of baby Naomi: “There – now she can choose.”

- - -

Nadia was seven months old. She was sitting in her high chair eating a plate of pasta and peas. Using her left hand she carefully picked up each piece of pasta with her fingers and ate them until only the peas remained on the plate.

Then she ate the peas, one at a time, picking up each one with her fingers and looking at it closely before putting it in her mouth.

Lunch lasted much longer for Nadia than it did for some of the other children in the group, but her key person knew that Nadia needed to take her time and focus carefully and quietly on her food.

Because she had spent so many mealtimes with Nadia, the adult knew not to hurry this part of the day, but to quietly and calmly enjoy it instead.

Policy matters

Adopting the key person approach in a setting means careful and thoughtful consideration of policies to support children, practitioners and parents.

Safeguarding and communication policies, as well as policies on learning and development, need to address the role of the key person.

This includes policy issues relating to physical contact and intimacy between practitioners and children. These should encourage closeness and make sure that everyone understands that this is part of professional, high-quality provision.

Clarity around attachment and relationships between practitioners and children means that you can involve and assure parents that you’re attending to their children’s all-round needs on a very personal level.

Adults who are ‘in tune’ with children are better able to support their learning. You could argue that we should afford children the provision of a key person as a matter of right.

Indeed, reflecting on the implications of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child for provision for young children, Jools Page argues that the key person approach is essential if children are to feel secure and loved in their early years settings (Nutbrown and Page 2008).

Further reading

The following books explore in detail the issues surrounding ‘attachment’ and the ‘key person’:

  • Key Persons in the Nursery: Building Relationships for Quality Provision by Elfer, Goldschmied and Selleck (2003)
  • People Under Three: Young Children in Day Care (2nd edition) by Goldschmied and Jackson (2003)
  • Communication Between Babies in their First Year by Goldschmied and Selleck (1996)
  • Working with Babies and Children Under Three by Nutbrown and Page (2008)

Cathy Nutbrown is head of the School of Education at the University of Sheffield. Find further discussion of the issues of ‘attachment’ and the ‘key person’ in Cathy’s book, Key Concepts in Early Childhood Education and Care (2nd edn), published by Sage.