There is a constant air of change within Early Years and this spring is no exception. The heightened tensions of the rumbling 30 hours debates, the shift back to Ofsted inspections being in-house to name a few major changes which will be having an unsettling impact on senior staff. The pace and consistency of the changes we are exposed to daily can have negative effects on the existing stability of teamwork and practice (Kanter, 2001). Looking out for the wellbeing of your staff teams and the managers implementing the changes will ensure that you can introduce changes when your team are ready and ensure that you are limiting the impact of the change effect.
We recently had the benefit of an early years consultant in one of our settings where we were supporting staff to implement a greater shift towards child-led practice. During our observations of the new practice, we began to see basics being missed and the leaders of the change appearing to forget to do things that they had been observed competently achieving for years. We had fallen foul of the classic fatigue of change, our leaders were so anxious about getting the new practice right that they had stopped having the capacity to think about the things they already did well.
Change can cause anxiety because you are shifting the comfortable way that the team work within a setting, this can raise fears for them and us about being good enough, staff feeling that they are unsure about what to do and often just learning the new way takes cognitive effort. The impact of this can be fatigue, staff can be more tired and less attentive and therefore your change leaders need to be alert to supporting the team to be able to think about implementing change at the pace that is right for them.
Understanding psychological reactions to change is important for any leader embarking on a change cycle. This adapted Kubler-Ross model is one way of understanding the negative reactions that staff may go through in response to changes you are trying to implement:
- Shock stage: Initial shutdown at hearing what is perceived as bad news.
- Denial stage: Avoiding thinking, talking or acting on the change.
- Anger stage: Frustrated outpouring of bottled-up emotion most likely directed at change leaders or positive colleagues.
- Bargaining stage: Seeking in vain for a way out or a watering down of the change.
- Depression stage: Final realisation of the inevitable and a marked dip in mood at work.
- Testing stage: Seeking realistic solutions and using others for support.
- Acceptance stage: Finally finding the way forward.
Of course, change can also bring energy to the setting. Exciting new ways of working, different personnel, introducing new equipment can all lead to staff feeling more motivated or interested in how this will work for them. The key is in the management of the change. Often the challenges and fatigue arise as the change itself has not been thought through in enough detail or the inadvertent consequences of the change, such as we found with people forgetting the things they could already do, are not clear enough.
We certainly had a positive response to our discussions of change, but even the most anticipated changes can still go through tricky times. This usually begins with uninformed optimism, we are looking forward to the change but have no idea at this stage what this might mean for us. We are looking forward to it, building a very positive but often over-optimistic view, for example that the change will mean things are much easier and/or resolve all of the current issues. Often this means that, for a short period, staff remain positively happy with the change. This period does not tend to last forever and the reality of the changes and the impact that this has starts to be realised. Staff often see the flaws of the change at this point and perhaps lose energy as things are just not as easy as they had expected. This can mean a period of questioning the change and may give rise to grumbles about the introduction of the change itself. This is a great learning time, sticking with the change and listening to your team will lead to informed optimism. Staff will understand the benefits and the challenges of making the change and start to make more realistic plans about how to fully embed the changes.
Put in place systems to spot the early warning signals of change fatigue. Make sure your change leaders are alert to employees who are expressing confusion about the planned change or even a general sense of being overwhelmed because of the change agenda. Ensure your change leaders know how to protect themselves from change fatigue before supporting others and have a realistic sense of what might happen when they introduce change. Understand how you will establish and communicate change objectives and success measures before beginning the next programme of change. Take time out to review the objectives and understand if any negative impact is occurring because of the change. Be flexible in your approach and ensure that your change leaders have the skills and experience necessary to follow the change through.
By communicating what we were observing during our change, we were able to create a story for the setting that we were not getting it right all the time and that this was understandable. We were able to ask the practitioners to help us understand whether we needed to slow the pace or support them more in developing their understanding.
Ultimately, we remembered to be kind. My observation is that our childcare workforce can be fragile, we are consistently pushing our caring, dedicated individuals out of their comfort zone in the name of change and improvement. We would like to think that as we learn more about the most effective ways of delivering practice that this will have a positive effect on the children in our care, but let us not forget the needs of our workforce also.
About the author
Dr Sonya Wallbank is the Managing Director of Capellas Nurseries and after school clubs. Sonya is a Chartered Psychologist by background and an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society (BPS). Sonya is also a registered member of the Health and Care Professional Council (HCPC) and Chartered member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD). She has worked in the UK, USA and Australia training a range of staff to utilise her model within their work. Her most recent NHS position was Director of Children and Families. She has trained a range of staff in the NHS, Department of Health, Local Authorities, private organisations, hospices and charities. As a keen writer, Sonya has published in both professional journals and books and has a number of ongoing blogs.
Capellas use a specific model of care and education with its roots in Child Psychology theory. If you would like to learn more go to www.capellas.co.uk
Kanter, R. M, (2001), “How to Overcome Change Fatigue”, Harvard Management Communications Letter, Vol.4, No.7.
Kübler-Ross, E. (2005) On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss, Simon & Schuster Ltd