Every parent of a small child knows what a big struggle starting nursery can be. I can still remember the miserable feeling of leaving my small daughter crying on her first full day at nursery.
I wasn’t convinced by the cheerful “Don’t worry, she’ll be alright!” that followed me out. Although she was, mostly.
'Kiss and drop' at nursery
Covid-19 protocols mean that we have replaced normal settling-in procedures in nurseries with “kiss-and-drop” routines. Many early years practitioners have been positive about this.
For example, Ofsted’s recent Covid-19 briefing on early years tells us that some providers are saying that “children have settled much better with…parents leaving them at the gate”. Some plan to keep these emergency procedures in place when the pandemic is over.
However, what is convenient for adults isn’t necessarily good for children. Kiss and drop may work smoothly. But at what cost?
EYFS: Attachment theory
Attachment theory tells us that it is ordinary for young children to feel distress when separated from their parents.
Yet nursery practitioners make all sorts of efforts, consciously or not, to ignore that distress. In an excellent recent paper Debbie Brace explains how common it is for us respond to children in ways which are “out of tune”.
As children express sadness, adults respond with positivity and busy-ness. Brace argues that this leaves the children “alone with their undigested emotions”.
How do we imagine the children will ever learn to recognise and manage such powerful feelings?
Time to reflect
We can use our experiences in the past six months to reflect on that question. A settling-in procedure can be problematic precisely because it is so procedural. Instead, we need to create the possibility of hearing children’s distress.
Most often, we give that very difficult emotional task to some of the least trained, least supported and lowest paid people in education: nursery workers and teaching assistants.
We don’t give staff in the early years the opportunity to talk and think about the distress of day-to-day life with young children. As a result, children do not always get thoughtful and sympathetic responses to their sadness or anger.
We could usefully get away from the one-size-fits-all settling-in policy. In truth, some children settle quickly and do not need, or want, their parents around. They put their emotions into doing things and playing.
Why interfere with that? Sometimes, I think we are afraid to allow those children to draw comfort from being in a group: we want everything to revolve around the adults.
On the other hand, some children are very troubled by starting nursery. They are too young to make sense of their feelings. They need us to do that. Each situation is unique, though distress, in general, is an ordinary part of childhood.
We need to talk about that together, and with parents, in an honest way. Practitioners and parents need to find a way forward together, in the child’s best interests. We need to stop following settling-in procedures in unthinking ways.
Dr Julian Grenier is the headteacher of Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre. He co-leads the East London Research School