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Early years practitioner wellbeing support

How to support mental health and wellbeing of you and your team in an early years setting.

The importance of early years practitioner wellbeing

The early years workforce makes a huge contribution to young children’s lives, and a role in early years can be enjoyable and rewarding. However, it can also be a challenging and demanding career. As in any workplace, this can take a toll on an individual’s mental health and wellbeing.

It is therefore essential that early years practitioners are properly supported within their setting to feel happy and fulfilled both inside and outside of work.

Improving practitioner wellbeing practice can benefit both the individual practitioner, and the setting as a whole. This creates a positive environment for practitioners and children, which in turn can: 

  • reduce absence
  • increase effectiveness at work
  • improve practitioner retention 

Better practitioner wellbeing is also a factor in children’s personal, social and emotional development. This staff wellbeing video from the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families explains how managing wellbeing can help you to develop stronger relationships with children and support their emotional regulation. This is particularly important if you work with children who have their own emotional difficulties.

Early years practitioner wellbeing case studies

There are many ways in which practitioners’ wellbeing can be supported. In these case studies, early years leaders from four settings explain their approach to managing practitioner wellbeing.  These are real settings contacted by the Department for Education to share their experiences for this article.

Tiger Tots Nursery

Tiger Tots Nursery is a private provider based in Kirkby in the Knowsley area of Liverpool. The setting employs 25 members of staff.

Managing Director Carol Copoc, Operations and Finance Director Dianne Copoc-Jones, and Training and Development Manager and Wellbeing Champion Jo Copoc share their insights on managing staff wellbeing within their setting:

“At Tiger Tots Nursery we prioritise the mental, emotional and physical wellbeing of our practitioners and staff members. This has increased significantly over the past three years: we have gone from carrying out standard HR check-ups with employees to now carrying out regular monthly wellbeing checks which are delivered through our seven Wellbeing Champions. The champions have been trained through our own in-house programme and share tools and techniques to support all our staff – including the champions themselves, as wellness starts within.

We are also supporting our staff to better recognise the signs of poor wellbeing in themselves, and to speak up if they are struggling. Discussing mental health is no longer a taboo subject, we want to break down those barriers. We operate an open-door policy so staff can feel free to discuss their emotions in a safe space.

Our physical wellness practice includes mindfulness walks, Forest School, Yoga and Taekwondo. Supporting better nutrition and hydration is standard practice within the setting but something simple that also contributes to physical wellbeing.

We have observed, following the pandemic, that separation anxiety in children has increased and it can take much longer for them to settle in. We need to ensure that staff are better equipped and resilient to be able to support children and their families, especially those who are vulnerable.

Introducing strategies such as kindness, happiness, mindfulness, and fun has helped to make our workplace sustainable. We find that the more we support and invest in the self-regulation and wellbeing of our staff, the higher quality practice and the greater benefit we see for all our staff, children and families.”

Managing Director Carol Copoc, Operations and Finance Director Dianne Copoc-Jones

Karla Roberts

“Wellbeing is a fundamental priority when working in early years. As a childminder, I can plan my day around my own needs and those of the children and other adults I work with. This ensures we can prioritise our own wellbeing. If we feel under the weather, for example, we can choose to have a slower paced day. I also plan a lot of time outdoors, which I know keeps myself, my assistants, and the children happy.  

Being able to compartmentalise is also a key skill. I think it’s very important that we don’t strive to be happy or perfect all the time. That’s a lot of pressure to deal with on an average working day. It’s also essential to not overcommit as a childminder. Keeping the day simple and organised is the best way to maintain a sense of calm. 

Professional support is also necessary. As childminders we often work alone, so talking to others is the best thing we can do to prevent feeling isolated. Engaging via informal groups online creates a supportive environment within the sector and brings us together. This means we can discuss the stress of the role with someone who understands, as well as share best practice.”

Karla Roberts, Childminder, North Northamptonshire

Ark Start

Ark Start is a school-based nursery. It operates from two Ark schools in London: Ark John Archer Primary Academy in Battersea and Ark Start Oval in Croydon. Ark Start employs around 20 practitioners across both settings. 

Director Katie Oliver says:

“We believe that high quality leadership and management are essential to ensure that the structure of our setting promotes good staff wellbeing. 

For instance, we try to limit the amount of admin staff must do. This allows them to focus on their role as educators. We schedule time for necessary tasks within their working hours, but keep it separate from the time they have with the children. 

We also conduct termly anonymous staff surveys, with specific questions about staff wellbeing. This helps to keep management informed and allows staff to voice how they are feeling. Making sure staff feel valued is fundamental to a positive work environment – and it’s free. As part of this, we refer to all our staff as educators. We hope that this creates a culture where there is no hierarchy, and everyone feels respected. 

We are also committed to supporting the professional development and continuous learning of our staff. We want to ensure they feel we invest in them, so we schedule in time specifically for this purpose. This takes many forms, including online and in-person training. We also visit other settings to learn about practice in different environments.”

Katie Oliver, Ark Start, Croydon and Wandsworth

Selby Cottage Childcare Centre

Selby Cottage Childcare Centre is one of five nurseries run by Durham County Council. It is situated in Chester-le-Street in the North East of England and employs 19 members of staff.

Childcare Development Officer and Area Manager Kath Lowery says:

“Across our nurseries, it’s a priority that we nurture our staff. It’s not about grand gestures or things that cost a lot of money. It’s more about investing in and embedding a consistent culture of support and noticing the little things that our colleagues might need help with. For example, simple daily habits like checking in with the teams’ wellbeing or just making a cup of tea.

We strive to support our staff to have a good work-life balance, ensuring they don’t miss important family moments such as sports days or nativity shows, and offering special personalised gestures.

We actively encourage the team to bring their own interests and passions to work. For example, we have a staff member who has a keen interest in animal welfare who has taught the children so much about caring for animals.

Working in early years is so broad: one day we might be doing a beach visit or forest school - the next we might be leading an intervention for children. So, it’s important for us to support practitioner wellbeing, and we spend a lot of time inducting new staff and students so that they feel part of our community.

Nurturing wellbeing is a year-round responsibility, but we run a dedicated wellbeing week each year, with activities such as a sea swim, yoga sessions or lunch together around a campfire.

It’s important that our practitioners see the leadership team as a positive role model demonstrating guidance and empathy – this is ultimately how we want our team to be with the children in our care. The emotional environment is so important for children as well as adults – it’s got to be right for the children to learn and thrive. We want our nurseries to be a happy place for everyone.”

Kath Lowery, Selby Cottage Childcare Centre, Durham

Support for early years practitioners

If you are struggling with your mental health or wellbeing, you may wish to discuss your concerns with your line manager or another colleague within your setting in the first instance. If you want support from someone outside of your workplace, the following links may be helpful.

The Hub of Hope is a mental health support directory provided by Chasing the Stigma which signposts to local, regional and national services offering support on a wide range of topics including bereavement, anxiety and loneliness.

Education Support offers a free emotional support helpline for everyone working in education, including early years. It is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and you will speak to a qualified counsellor. You can contact Education Support by phone, text, online live chat or email.

Education Support’s guide to the building blocks of good mental wellbeing includes advice on exercise, eating well and developing good sleep habits.

Every Mind Matters provides a source of expert advice to help you and your staff look after your mental health. This includes practical tips that you can build into your daily routine.

The Every Mind Matters self-care tool creates a personalised mental health action plan, with tips and advice to help you be kind to your mind.

Workplace toolkits and resources for managers

If you are an early years leader or manager, these resources may offer ideas to help you implement wellbeing support and practice in your setting.  

The Anna Freud Centre’s early years staff wellbeing resource for managers and teams includes advice on how to support your staff through management, planning meetings on wellbeing, and facilitating support from outside your setting.    

The Anna Freud Centre and Child Outcomes Research Consortium have created a wellbeing measurement for early years settings. This is a survey that you can use to better understand your staff’s wellbeing and how to offer support. 

Foundation Years have published a vodcast on mental health and wellbeing. They also offer presentations that focus on putting wellbeing at the heart of early years practice.

National Day Nurseries Association has developed an adaptable wellbeing policy template for nurseries. This is free of charge to all nursery settings.