Relieving stress in the over-burdened nursery sector

This is a series of occasional blogs by BESA members and is part of their paid membership service. These views are not necessarily those of BESA and a published blog does not constitute an endorsement.

BESA member Innovating Minds was called into Hart Hill Nursery School in Luton to support educational staff in the middle of a reorganisation. Here CEO Dr Asha Patel reflects on the needs of those working with the youngest members of the educational community. 

Nurseries are having a hard time. With a government drive to increase the number of child places, staff shortages and changes in policy, they are having to balance higher expectations with more limited resources so it is no wonder that nursery staff feel under pressure and that so many are leaving the profession.

The National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) published a workforce survey in March 2018 and reported: ‘The number of employers struggling to recruit level 3 staff has increased over the past year. In our 2016 survey, 58% of respondents found recruiting level 3 staff difficult. In this 2017/18 Workforce Survey, this has increased to 66% – an increase of 8% of employers.’

According to the survey, reasons for leaving included stress, long-term sickness, too much paperwork, restructuring, and the demands of the job. Many felt that the pay did not reflect the level of responsibility and others said recent government policy changes had made the job far less enjoyable.

One respondent said: ‘I have worked with families and children for over 37 years and I am leaving the sector next month. I have never felt as demoralised as I do now with childcare.’

We were invited in to work with Hart Hill Nursery School in Luton which Ofsted praised saying: ‘Children make good progress in all the areas of learning and some make outstanding progress.’  They were concerned about the impact of a forthcoming reorganisation on their staff. In the past, they might have called in an adviser from the local authority or even a management consultant, but nursery owners are now more aware that they have a duty of care to assess the risk of work-related stress. 

Stress is something of a catch-all term but is defined by the Health and Safety Executive as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them.  For nursery practitioners, this could include a backlog of paperwork or cover for absent colleagues. These days, nursery staff bear heavy responsibilities, especially when children are experiencing mental health difficulties. It is now known that infants can experience depression when they are just a few months old and that some children have attachment issues and those staff who are directly responsible for working with troubled children often worry that they lack the necessary training or experience.

At Hart Hill we worked with the headteacher, deputy headteacher, teaching staff, the SENCo, teaching assistants and lunchtime supervisors and still go to the nursery once a month. Together we developed an ambitious agenda:

  • improving staff confidence and self-esteem
  • helping staff to recognise and manage stress
  • creating healthier relationships at school and home
  • managing anxiety and depression
  • developing assertiveness skills
  • developing problem-solving skills
  • making use of mindfulness

Some people just wanted one session; others needed ongoing support. One worker was affected by safeguarding training which uncovered buried memories. Some needed help to be more assertive or to feel it was permissible to delegate tasks to others and not see it as a sign of weakness. As mental health practitioners, we could help staff to find new ways of managing their relationships with colleagues, senior leaders and their own families. One manager told us: ‘It has helped me to recognise my stress levels and how to recognise when situations need to be dealt with rather than letting problems build up.’

Sometimes we helped workers manage their own expectations. Many lacked confidence. They had been in caring roles all their professional life and were used to looking after others but needed to learn how to look after themselves too. A nursery worker told us: ‘Each session was super. I came out with a clearer head and a better sense of wellbeing, just for having the conversation.’

The work we have done together at Hart Hill Nursery School has destigmatised mental health support. Now, staff will seek help quite openly and the strategies they learn spill over into home life and relationships outside of work. One told us: ”I was hesitant to partake as the sessions took me away from class and children’s learning but as the weeks went by it was great to embrace the moment and have time to talk and share solutions to problems together without being pressured or rushed. It has also impacted in a good way at home. My wellbeing has increased, therefore I am better equipped and ready to work and support my team and child in the workplace.’

Innovating Minds is a community interest company that specialises in an early intervention model. Founded in February 2016 by Clinical Psychologist Dr Asha Patel, the company has won awards for its work with nurseries, schools, out of school provision, charities, colleges and universities.

 Dr Patel now writes a regular column for Education Today magazine and is advising software companies on how to make their products work more effectively in the classroom.

Innovating Minds 
Hart Hill Nursery School