Case Study - Developing reflective practice and leadership skills


In this guest blog from Steven White of Tiptoes Nursery, he shares with us a case study example of using reflective practice and the development of leadership skills to improve outcomes for children's learning. So grab yourself a drink, settle down and enjoy this long read! 

Developing and implementing a broader approach to the use of our fire pit: going beyond the marshmallow.

Through self-evaluation, early years practitioners were supported to contribute to the creation of a detailed action plan, which indicated that an area for improvement was the use of the fire pit; how could meaningful experiences created for our children by using fire? A meaningful experience that will go beyond just the toasting of marshmallows using the open fire.  

The project created many questions, one that arose at the start of the process was how the impact would be measured and evaluated to effectively meet the needs of the early years practitioners and meet the outcomes for the children’s learning experiences. The need to go beyond the evaluation processes of reviewing the documentation of children’s learning experiences was discussed as a team. A concern was raised that there would be an element of bias created when an individual recorded and reviewed the children’s experiences and outcomes, through traditional methods of the floor book or an individual’s learning journal. In developing the project, a stronger record of evidence was required.

The contribution of the practitioner and how this was documented was explored through an analysis developed by Mayne (2009); this would allow the project to offer an insight to the relationship between the practitioner and child. A logical model (see image) was created and used to record the development of practice, development of benefit risk assessments, development of policies and procedures. The logical model was shared amongst the entire staff team and regularly revisited to evaluate progress. Progress was determined by evaluating positive and negative outcomes and reflecting on what required to be included in addition to the original draft. The logical model provided a tool for critical reflection to occur and open discussion amongst the team in regard to what was working and what was not, for example the first cooking experience failed due to offering to boil their home-made soup on a particularly hot summers day. The feedback from the team was that originally "a blame of it being purely the children's dislike to veg would likely be the thing that caused the failure but using the logical tool we discussed through the headings and realised it was down to us to think about how we delivered this experience to our children." (early years practitioner).    

Leadership, sustained, shared thinking, and CPD

The practitioners that were engaged directly with this project requested that this experience would support their leadership and management development. As Adair 2016 (pp 68) discusses “people grow as leaders by that actual practice of leading. There is no substitute for experience.”; this active learning approach for adults is similar to the approach that we engage children with - this is a power approach to learning and forms the foundation of critical reflection on personal experiences, promoting empathy and a connection to the children that they teach. In relation to the leadership of the team as a senior leader, consideration was required as to when to provide the individuals involved the opportunity to lead the project, offering enough challenge without overwhelming them. This was applied through discussion on how the practitioner felt and is supported by the reference, “The trick here is to give the person the right job at the right time. It should be the kind of leadership role that is realistic but challenging for the individual concerned” (Adair, 2016. pp 68). 

The teams involved would also be supported through providing continuing professional development; CPD that supports staff participants about the theories of leadership, especially focusing on the theories being adopted during the journey of this project. Bubb et al, (2007) discusses the importance of the role of senior leaders in providing meaningful CPD as this is critical to the success of any project, whether immediate or in the future. This is supported by Timperley (2011 pp 128) who shared that “leaders must be prepared to overcome initial resistance and put in place the conditions that motivate people to take advantage of professional learning opportunities in communities and individually”.  

The sustained shared thinking and emotional well-being (SSTEW) (Siraj et al, 2015) assessment document, supported the early years team through the initial self-evaluation process as they adopted the SSTEW scale; it also provided the ethos and methodology to remain within our vision and aim for the nursery. The SSTEW scales were utilised before, during and after the project to gauge the levels of success of delivery and evaluating the impact that the project had on children’s outcomes.   

Outcome - or how the project progressed in reality

The changes to the practice of utilising the outdoor fire have impacted operational and strategic leadership for the better, providing scope on the boundaries that the team will operate within and how best to challenge boundaries to allow development to occur; the aim being to offer improved learning experiences for children and staff. The project has provided myself a platform from which to reflect on, further research and the ability to put into practice, several of the theories that surround leadership and management (Crawford, 2014., Adair, 2016., Northouse, 2016). The project has provided myself a greater understanding of utilising and adapting different styles of leadership theories when supporting change. Strategic leadership is vital in allowing change to occur, Crawford (2014 pp 118) discusses that the leader must harness personal skills to manage boundaries “…it is very important to stress that the ability to utilise your personal skills to manage boundaries will more than likely be ineffective if you ignore the importance of strategic thinking.”.   

"The project has provided myself a greater understanding of utilising and adapting different styles of leadership theories when supporting change. Strategic leadership is vital in allowing change to occur"

Even though the project focused primarily on a theory of leadership that was perceived to meet the needs of the project, I discovered through my own naivety, that the practical delivery of any given theory in a team, or individual, is not as easily delivered as I had originally anticipated. During the progress of the project, one individual in the team demonstrated difficulties in carrying out the tasks offered, difficulties in engaging with training and coaching that was being delivered to upskill their practical abilities and found it difficult to comprehend the reasons behind the need for the project to take place. Although they had originally shown a great enthusiasm at the beginning, this enthusiasm strained greatly during the engagement process. In investigating change and the impact of change, I had recognised that my approach to change relied on one model of change to deliver the action plan, Crawford (2014 pp 112) discusses “The empirical-rational model assumes that most people are responsive to clear explanations about why change is necessary and will put the necessary structures in place”. I approached with an assumption that the action plan was clear and that the early years practitioners (out of which, two out of three were, or had been, senior leaders in previous early years settings) were experienced enough in their given role and that they would follow the plan accordingly.  

Reflection as a tool for leadership and CPD

Struggle to adapt to change is normal and reflection and investigation into where it stems from is of great importance to ascertain the next step of support through leadership. Communication skills are vital for the success of the project and I had not recognised through my own delivery of leadership that the most senior leader of the group, would be the individual that would find change most difficult to engage with. I have come to critically reflect and understand that change had not been communicated by a justification of the chosen approach. Mintzberg (1979) expressed that the work of leaders involved the application of rationality, which I had originally overlooked, due to my own assumptions that other leaders understood the task in hand and how to go about implementing it. Historically, I would have responded to the most senior leader of the group with questionable doubt over the individual maturity level, where they find difficulty with being led by another leader i.e. myself. I would also question their commitment to develop their own practice to provide better outcomes for children. I would respond by offering the individual the opportunity to leave the project, allowing others to continue with little distraction. I would have previously been of the belief that the emotions of the individual would be the main and only catalyst for the resistance. However, I had not researched enough into this and through reflection, discovered that this was my opinion and not fact based upon research. Oatley and Jenkins (2003 pp 82) suggest that emotions arise in our lives through the need to solve problems. I had not understood emotional intelligence (EI), especially the first component of E.I. self-awareness (Goleman, 2011). Through previous work and at the start of this project, I had overlooked my own self-awareness which was crucial to understand the impact of change on the team.  Thankfully EI can be learned and developed for both the team and the individuals within the group and it is hoped that this will benefit the children’s outcomes moving forward.  

Change is disruptive to the team and throughout this project, change has been the key focus for supporting practitioners to deal with the difficulties that it brings. If small changes to procedure in one activity can create such difficulties then leaders must be clear in the need for change on any scale, be it cultural or operational; the detail and support from leaders will be key to the project’s success. Crawford (2014, pp117) agreed with Boleman and Deal (2003) sharing “…change is costly emotionally for the people involved and for those who lead it and can cost more than is expected…”.   

Reflective practice leading to improved outcomes

Through improving communication systems between myself and the staff member, it had been recognised through research that the primary theory of transformational leadership did not suit this individual, and that the theory of adaptive leadership would be more appropriate. It was my own approach and use of this leadership theory that had to change to regain a balance for success with the project. I had to make sense of what was really going on with the senior practitioner and truly reflect using Crawford (2014 pp 114) research “essentials of leadership: know the people, know the task and know the organisation” which I had overlooked in more than one of these aspects. I had not appreciated the group culture that, in part, explained the resistance from the senior leader; as the leader of the group they had manifested the current culture in the team, specifically to engaging with change of any form, as they would often say "that's not the way we've done things here in the past". Schein (2010 pp 18) discusses that “cultural forces are powerful because they operate outside our awareness. We need to understand them not only because of their power but also because they help to explain many of our puzzling and frustrating experiences in social and organizational life… understanding cultural forces enables us to understand ourselves better”. This notion provided a better understanding of the team and that of myself, in that a recognition of the bias that we bring affects our approach to leadership. Making sense of cultural forces provided the necessary understanding to progress the project and promote a change in culture to create an environment where change was actively sought. Furthermore, the idea that “…people’s beliefs lead inevitably to the actions that they take, that people need to make sense of what is going on and the implication’s that might have for what they do next” is discussed by Wieck (1976) ; upon reflection I believe that had this not occurred and posed a real risk to the project losing momentum, or worse, halting the project altogether with no implementation and development of the action plan taking place. I have learnt that other leadership styles are useful in a given situation when an individual, group or other factors influence the success of the project and are useful in creating a change in culture to actively seek development to better children’s outcomes. Stoll (2011 pp 193) suggested “…helping adults to have the capacity to learn continuously themselves is not at all clear-cut. Professional learning communities are a critical key to institutional capacity building”. The collaborative community of learning as early years professionals would correlate with improving outcomes for children. With a positive outlook to change, early years practitioners will focus on developing a deeper knowledge in an organised way that does not rely on one-off professional development experiences within their career.  

"I have learnt that other leadership styles are useful in a given situation when an individual, group or other factors influence the success of the project and are useful in creating a change in culture to actively seek development to better children’s outcomes."

Sensitivity to others and the ability to adapt accordingly are vital components when working with team members, this promotes a positive view on change and creates a culture of embracing development. Through the project I have developed an understanding of the breadth of approaches in the study of leadership theories and through the engagement of this project, I will confidently encounter future projects utilising other leadership styles that I am currently unfamiliar with. I feel confident to not only engage in discussions with experienced leaders within early years education but also to research their success and understand their variety of leadership styles. The journey provided myself with a personal success in that I was able to transform from one style to another and maintain the original members of the project through to completion. This journey was not an easy one and I have a new-found appreciation of change, specifically with regards to the time and direction it can take; whether it is in small steps over a sustained period or quickly in a short time frame, practice is not fixed indefinitely.   

Further information

Read a full list of references here


Where next? 

Case study - Effective Leadership - free book extract

Case study- a day in the life of an Ofsted inspector

Case study - child-centred and led learning – dispensing with the circle time

Case study - Supporting Children’s Experiences of Loss and Separation - free book extract