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Majority of early years staff deal with challenging emotional needs

By Rachel Lawlernursery staff baby reading early years

Most early years staff have experienced working with children with “complex backgrounds” and “challenging needs” according to a new survey by the Anna Freud Centre.

Many staff reported that they feel under-prepared for this side of their early years roles.

More than 900 nursery staff responded to the survey between October and the end of December 2020, with many practitioners also expressing concerns about the effect of the pandemic.

Challenges for children
71% of nursery workers said that they had worked with children or babies from families affected by domestic violence. 69% of respondents said that they had worked with children or babies affected by trauma or abuse. 60% reported working with children or babies from families affected by substance abuse.

75% of staff said they had looked after children who displayed “unusually aggressive or violent behaviour” and 91% said they had dealt with situations involving children who potentially had mental health issues or social/emotional difficulties.

The effects of the pandemic was also a concern, with 42% of staff noticing signs that the lockdown had affected children’s emotional wellbeing.

Staff wellbeing
Dealing with these challenging needs was also having an impact on staff themselves. 71% of staff said that they had become stressed or upset when dealing with these situations, while 74% said they felt confused and unsure of the best way to deal with them.

Formative years
Dr Camilla Rosan, head of the early years programme at the Anna Freud Centre, said: “The early years are the most important in terms of a child’s development, and the results of this survey are truly eye opening. When most of us think about who will be directly supporting our most vulnerable children and families, we normally think of social workers and mental health professionals. But we forget that our nursery workers are engaging with vulnerable children on a daily basis.

“Aside from their own families, these children probably spend more time with nursery workers than anyone else during their early formative years. This research should fundamentally shift the way we view the role of nursery workers within our society.”

Support for sector
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Alliance, commented: “This report rightly highlights the crucial role that early years workers play in supporting our youngest children, especially those who are facing challenges that no one, at any age, should have to face.

"We know that practitioners are a source of unwavering emotional safety and security for children, but undoubtedly the level of responsibility when it comes to supporting and safeguarding children can itself take a huge emotional toll on those working in the early years.

“It is therefore vital that the sector is supported both practically and financially to ensure practitioners are not under undue pressure themselves, and that they have access to the tools and training needed to provide the vital care so many children need. With a whole range of issues arising from the pandemic, from the increase in families struggling with bereavement or trauma, to a reduction in other community support, this is absolutely the right time to invest in providers' training and wellbeing.

“We urge the government to carefully consider the findings of this report and to make sure that practitioners feel not only confident in their understanding of early years mental health, but also able to protect their own emotional wellbeing, as well as that of the children in their care."

Find out more
Read the report in full here
Effective transition and wellbeing in the early years