Last week was ‘Early Years Well-Being Week’, which bought to attention the importance of the well-being of not only the children in Early Years, but the professionals who work with them. It is no coincidence that this week fell in the same week as ‘World Mental Health Day’, but why has it taken until now for us as adults, practitioners and colleagues to start talking about our mental health, how we feel, our struggles and the support we need as professionals?
As practitioners, we are on the front line of early years childcare. We are the people actively working with children day in, day out; supporting them, teaching them, caring for them, nurturing them and ultimately, being there for them. This is an incredibly important job, but also an incredibly demanding one, both mentally and physically.
But who is there for us when things get tough? Do we even admit that we are struggling or that things are becoming difficult? If so, where does this closed book mentality come from? It’s easy to forget that actually, we are only human and whilst we dedicate our lives to caring for, protecting and teaching children to be emotionally resilient, confident, learners, sometimes that dedication and focus can have considerable effects on the mental health and well-being of the staff and professionals on the front line. (As well as the line managers and setting owners who are put under immense pressure, stress and strain daily as a result of the challenges the early years sector as a whole is currently facing.)
Mental health and well-being as a whole is significantly more prevalent and openly discussed by society and the media, yet still so many early years practitioners and professionals are suffering in silence – but why is that? Is there an unwritten rule about asking for help in our profession? Do managers know how to adequately support staff who do admit to struggling? Is there wider support available and do management teams know who to signpost to?
Early Years Wellbeing Week gave us an opportunity to reflect on our own experiences, thoughts, feelings and we wanted to explore this important topic further. As a result, we joined in the NEYTCO (National Early Years Trainers and Consultants) online conversation ‘#EYMatters’ – which for this week was co-hosted by Kate Moxley; Early Years Consultant, accredited Mental Health First Aid instructor who bought Early Years Wellbeing Week to the forefront of the discussion, drawing upon her significant experience in the mental health and early years fields collectively.
The discussion raised some incredibly valid points and saw professionals from across the education sector get involved to make a point, share experiences and delve a little deeper into this topic. Regardless of whether you were part of the discussion, knew about Early Years Wellbeing Week or this blog is the first you are hearing of it; we all have a responsibility within Early Years, whether you are a line manager, senior practitioner or a colleague, we have to look out for each other, be aware of when others are struggling and know how to reach out and help, as well as a responsibility to ourselves to reach out and seek help and support where necessary too.
During the discussion, points were raised on how, particularly in the early years profession, how contagious stress is, particularly within a larger staff team – essentially negatively breeds negativity and as such if one staff member is feeling low, unsupported and stressed and this isn’t addressed, supported and resolutions put in place, then this will impact upon the whole staff team, thus impacting morale and the overall environment of your setting, which in the long run will impact on the children in your setting too.
Children are incredibly intuitive, particularly in regards to emotions, as Laura Henry, Early Years Consultant points out in her blog ‘Let’s Talk About It…..’, where she writes “Children are highly skilled at picking up conscious and unconscious emotions from staff.” This highlights how important it is that staff feel supported within their roles in order to enable them to adequately support the children they care for too.
There was considerable emphasis within the discussion on the mentality that seems to be underlying within early years, that asking for help or admitting that you are struggling makes you a ‘lesser’ practitioner and being viewed a ‘failure’ for needing a break. Similarly, so many practitioners feel as though they can’t speak out or ask for help as this will then add extra pressure and workload to their colleagues, thus breeding negativity within the professional relationships they have within the setting. This constant thread of worry isn’t healthy in any working environment, but particularly within the early years sector and so it is vitally important that we are talking to managers, staff and individuals about the importance of reaching out and how supporting each other is key to developing good working practice and a positive working environment, not only for ourselves and each other, but for the children too.
Another fear that was raised within the discussion was that if a practitioners speaks out and says they are struggling with their mental health and well-being that they are as a result viewed differently by their colleagues and manager once as not being able to adequately care for or becoming a ‘risk’ to the children – this is certainly not the case, or should not be. Another practitioner in the discussion was chastised for using the term and making reference to ‘mental health’ in front of a parent – but why? Parents need to be aware that we are human too, we have feelings, struggles and tribulations, just like them. This view that we need to be superhuman in order to adequately provide care for children is detrimental not only to practitioners, but to the working environment as a whole.
In our opinion, in order for the early years sector to make positive steps in order to support and manage mental health and well-being within it’s staff teams, is to ensure that managers and those in a senior position, don’t have to necessarily be trained in mental health, instead just need to be aware and understanding of mental health, know how to provide support and where to signpost their staff too. Making this a whole team mentality will not only improve staff morale and relationships, but also improve the outcomes, emotional awareness and understanding of the children in the setting too.
Children learn from what they see and how they feel and so a setting that are advocates for being emotionally aware and supportive will support the children in developing emotional intelligence, thus improving their awareness and understanding of others and developing the quality of their relationships with their peers and adults as a result.
In our setting, the children consistently witness us showing care and concern for each other as well as them, simply asking “Are you okay?”, “Can I help you do that?”, “How was your weekend?” “You need to drink some water….” little things, that make a big difference to anyone’s day and by children seeing such behaviour demonstrated by adult’s they love and respect, provides them with positive experiences and an underlying awareness of well-being and how we can support each other in our day to day practices.
Prevention rather than cure is the over-arching message we have taken from both the EYMatters discussion, as well as the information, experiences and anecdotes shared by our colleagues throughout Early Years Well-being Week; if as managers, colleagues and humans, we develop empathy, understanding and a positive approach to the mental health and well-being of our practitioners; the ones who are on the front line daily, acting as role-models, advocates for children, as well as the staff team as a whole, we are indirectly impacting and improving the emotional well-being and outcomes of the children in our setting’s as a result – if we all take small steps to do these things and be as a society more aware, perhaps we will start to see a much needed decline in the significant mental health issues and traumas surrounding our children in their earliest years, that we are currently experiencing.
Let’s support children in being aware of different emotions and feelings, identifying them, labelling them, talking about them and supporting them in finding a solution to their problems, no matter how small they may seem to us in order for them to grow up knowing that is okay to talk about their feelings, mental health and well-being, and improving their futures as a result.
By creating emphatic, understanding and emotionally aware young people, we are providing society with emotionally intelligent adults, at a time when we need them the most.
If any of the issues raised in this discussion have affected you, or you think you need support, then please speak to someone close to you, a friend, colleague, your manager or anyone who you think may be able to help. You don’t have to feel alone, there is help out there. The first step is asking for it. (Alternatively, follow some of the links below for signposting to organisations and networks that may be able to help you.)