Providing a nurturing environment for your under-threes needn’t adversely affect your business’s sustainability, argues Sarah Heale…
● Read the first part of Sarah’s series on the role of nursery managers.
In her book Why Love Matters, Sue Gerhardt illustrates why love is the single most important thing during the first three years of life. As someone working in an early years setting you may think, “What’s that got to do with me?” The idea that love should be part of the work of early years practitioners is somewhat of a taboo, but rather than brush it under the carpet, I’m going to explore the benefits.
Dr Jools Page from the University of Sheffield has coined the phrase ‘professional love’ to describe the feelings that a childcare professional can have for their charges and vice versa. To have to couch it in such a way goes to show how uncomfortable we all are with the notion. Intimate relationships with other people’s children are complicated, not least because of child protection issues. But would a child differentiate between parental and professional love? Doesn’t a child want and need the same consistent, responsive and unconditional loving care whoever she/he is with? The neuroscience suggests yes.
There is now little doubt that the first three years of life shape a human’s mental, emotional and physical health for life. We now know – simple though it sounds – that it is love that makes babies’ brains grow. The loving relationships that under-threes have with their carers are the key predictor of development, particularly social and emotional and, as we’re increasingly realising, their physical health as well.
Given that half of mothers of children under three are in paid work, and that early years provision is widely available from birth for up to 60 hours a week, it’s vital that people working in, or paying for, childcare don’t ignore the love question.
The EYFS was designed primarily with over-threes in mind, and yet it’s used in settings with baby rooms. In terms of guidance to professionals about provision for education and care for 3–5-year-olds, the framework is ‘fit for purpose’. But under-threes have different needs, with emotional stability the emphasis. Is it any surprise that UNICEF rates our youngsters as having the lowest wellbeing out of the 21 countries in their league table if as infants their emotional needs are ignored?
A baby who experiences secure attachment – to firstly the primary carer and then one or two others – learns to trust that the world is a predictable and safe place. Without this secure attachment, mental and physical health problems can result. I don’t think any of us would argue that a child shouldn’t be attached to her/his key person, but does attachment automatically imply love? I think that because a key person will always be a secondary attachment figure, the relationship should be viewed as like that of a loving aunt or other family member.
Professor van IJzendoorn, at the Centre for Child and Family Studies at Leiden University, coined the phrase ‘external stress moderator’ for anyone to whom an infant is attached in the first year of life. When thinking about staff recruitment, training and support, that phrase is useful, as certain skills immediately come to mind: an empathetic attitude, good tolerance for stress and an understanding of psychology.
Andrea Leadsom, Tory MP and leader of a cross-party group that wants a commitment from David Cameron and Nick Clegg to move £40 million a year of government spending from older children to under-twos, says, “Very often the least-qualified staff are looking after the youngest children. The very young girls who are least trained won’t necessarily realise that gazing into babies’ eyes, mimicking their expressions [and] saying ‘I love you’ is really important to their brain development.”
So where does this leave owners and managers? You may think that this attachment approach is going to adversely affect a business’s profits, but the two most effective ways of delivering it – 1) culture change and 2) minimising key person transitions – needn’t be costly. And when the babies are more content and the culture more nurturing, costs will reduce as staff feel more rewarded in the role, leading to lower absenteeism and staff turnover. This will also have a positive impact on reputation with customers.
There are some good initiatives out there that minimise key person transitions and strengthen relationships between the key person and parents. But processes and policy are only a part of the equation; managers really have to walk the walk and talk the talk. If you role model eye contact, cuddling and ‘motherese’ with the under-threes, and encourage special one-to-one time with a child, it will soon become part of ‘it’s just how we do things around here’. This will be far more cost effective than days and days of expensive training whose ideas will soon evaporate if the setting environment isn’t right.
So, with the business case for love and attachment that benefits the children, and therefore society, what’s stopping you?
Sarah Heale is a trustee of charity What About The Children?