Working with young children can be an emotional rollercoaster at the best of times. We may have difficult days at work when nothing seems to go right, when the children are demanding, parents are challenging, and it feels like colleagues are uncooperative.
These are the days when we cannot wait until the end of our shift, the days when we feel like we’ve had enough and a new career that doesn’t involve children (or adults) seems a very tempting prospect indeed.
We all have our own coping strategies for the ‘bad’ days, one of which is knowing that ‘tomorrow will be better’ – and it usually is.
A child tells you they love you or achieves a new skill that has them beaming with delight, a parent remembers to say thank you and reassures you that the PVA glue on that new pair of trousers doesn’t matter, or a colleague makes a drink at lunchtime simply because ‘you look like you could do with one’.
The rollercoaster ride that is early years takes you to another high and you remember why working with children is so rewarding.
But the situation we find ourselves in now is very different from the occasional ‘bad day’. We’re overwhelmed as a sector by the enormity of trying to maintain some semblance of normality when every day brings a new challenge to our work and our personal lives.
There’s no easy solution to many of the problems the sector faces, which generates a sense of frustration at the apparent lack of priority that early years is given by the government when they’re allocating essential finances and resources.
The circumstances forced upon us by the pandemic leave us all feeling emotionally exhausted, despite the hope offered by the vaccination programme and the promise of better days to come.
Even the most resilient of us are feeling the strain and yet, every day, nurseries, childminders, and preschools open their doors to welcome children.
Despite the logistics of operating under confusing guidelines and challenging constraints, the sector never compromises on giving children the very best care possible.
So now more than ever, we need to look after each other too with some simple wins that can make a big difference…
Despite the valiant efforts people are making to ‘keep calm and carry on’ it’s vital to acknowledge when you’re not coping.
No matter what’s happening outside your setting, the children are still reliant on you to meet their needs and provide the safe, nurturing environment you always have. You cannot do so if you’re not okay yourself.
You and your colleagues must be aware of each other’s feelings, so you can offer that vital helping hand when needed. There’s support available for anyone who needs more help, but the first step is recognising that you need it.
Talk to your colleagues, your manager or your setting’s Mental Health First Aider (if you have one). Tell them how you’re feeling, what’s making you most anxious and how it’s affecting you at work, so that you can begin to look for solutions together.
If you’re a childminder working with an assistant/s, talk to each other about how you’re coping and what you’re finding most challenging.
This may be particularly helpful for any practitioner, including childminders who often work alone.
Other settings are facing the same day-to-day challenges that you are. Connect with each other where you can. Share ideas and offer solutions where you have overcome challenges yourselves.
Building a sense of community really helps with the isolation that many providers are feeling now. You’re not alone! Membership organisations can help too.
For example, the Early Years Alliance are hosting online Connect Events free of charge for members and non-members (including childminders) to hear sector updates and, most importantly, have the opportunity to share their worries and triumphs with each other.
Sometimes, the smallest things make the biggest difference in the workplace. Start by being kind to yourself. As carers, it’s our nature to want to make everything better, but we cannot be all things to all people, so focus on making sure you’re all right first.
It’s the same principle as placing the oxygen mask on your own face before helping others in an emergency. Find the things that make you feel good: whether it’s a walk in the fresh air, or curling up with a good book, give yourself time for you!
If you’re part of a team, allocate each person an anonymous ‘angel’ to watch over them. The angel will keep an eye out for signs of stress and when they see them will make a gesture such as leaving a note with an inspiring quote or completing a task on behalf of the person who’s struggling.
If everyone is prepared to join in, you have the makings of a wellbeing safety net in place.
Similarly, ask every member of the team to write on a post-it note, “You will know I’m starting to feel stressed when I…”.
This simple exercise helps people recognise their own signs of stress and each other’s, which is important in an environment where you work closely together.
Many providers have made better use of their outdoor space for practical reasons in the past 12 months to help with organising ‘bubbles’ and because of the reduced risk of infection transmission in the open air.
But being outdoors isn’t just a practical solution to space and infection control. According to the Wildlife Trust, “[d]aily contact with nature is linked to better health, reduced levels of chronic stress, reductions in obesity and improved concentration”.
It’s possible to create opportunities for daily contact with nature. Observing the variety of visitors to a simple bird-feeding station or tending to outdoor planters has the effect of calming our minds.
Make time at the beginning and the end of the day if you can, to spend five ‘mindful’ minutes outdoors when there are no children present.
Close your eyes, listen, breathe deeply and immerse yourself in the sounds and smells of nature.
Above all, remember that as educators and carers you’re making a huge difference to the children and families you’re caring for.
We may not yet know what the long-term impact of the pandemic will be on this generation of children, but what we do know is that we’ve given them our very best at a critical time in their learning and development.
Small daily steps can help make you feel better
Melanie Pilcher is quality and standards manager at The Early Years Alliance. For more information about Connect Events, training and support available from the Early Years Alliance, visit eyalliance.org.uk.