Josie, a nursery teacher has been working with me on her leadership development. She shared how she had taken over from an outstanding practitioner, and everyone in the room was very clear and confident about what they do and how. There was one staff member (let’s call her Sam) who spent a lot of time doing jobs and rarely seemed to be in the class when the parents arrived with their children. Josie wanted Sam to be there for the families at drop off and pick up and spend more time tuning into the children’s play. Josie was anxious not to single out the member of staff concerned for fear of upsetting her and so she made a general comment to the whole team about their focus in class and being available at the start and end of each session. There was no change in Sam’s behaviour so Josie was then unsure if the message had actually been received. She was wondering what to do next.
This led to us exploring one of the most powerful tools in a leader or manager’s toolkit: feedback. Feedback is one of those areas of leadership that is often avoided or done ineffectually. What we want to say can come out differently when we actually say it. Feedback can be confused with criticism and people can be highly sensitive to this. It can take them back to a negative earlier experience when they felt blamed or shamed and we might not be aware of this.
In her book on “Leadership and Management in the Early Years” (2013) Jane Cook provides a helpful table to the difference our words make.
During the session, I set the scene for Josie to practice a conversation with Sam, using the feedback phrases in the table. I roleplayed Sam so I could let Josie know how her words came across. This is how it went:
Where possible build on a strength:
‘Thank you for supporting me in settling into my new role as the class teacher. You have been really clear about how the room is run and the clear roles within the team.’
Looks to the future:
‘When the children start their session, it is really important that we’re all ready to engage with the parents and children right from the start. I would like the children to self-access resources more and make their own choices with us present and working alongside them.’
’I am looking to build confidence in the team to talk about the children’s development. The more time we spend tuning into the children the better we will understand how they learn and how toextend their interests. The families are probably the best source of information on how their children are developing, so we need to capture this each day when they arrive.’
About specific facts:
‘One thing I would like to see is you being ready at the door to meet and greet at the start of each session. I noticed yesterday and the day before that you were in the kitchen washing up when the families arrived. You missed that Pasha was really sad because his daddy had gone into hospital. That could have been followed up with some books or role play about emergency services or hospitals.
‘On a slightly different note, I have been trying to write a note to the parents about our ‘moment-by-moment’ planning. I wondered if you could help me phrase this and translate it into Pasha’s home language as you’ve already helped with a few phrases which the parents have really appreciated.
Says … ‘and’ and not ‘but’:
The way you have set up the classroom looks really attractive and I wondered if you could ask the children and parents about what they would like to get out each morning instead of setting up in advance. This way we can stock the classroom with open-ended resources that allow us to be available and responsive to children’s immediate learning needs.
Josie left the session feeling more confident about how to use her words. She was determined to meet with Sam as soon as she could, to carry out her feedback. She recognised it was in Sam’s best interests, to make her a stronger, thoughtful practitioner. To support Josie, I provided her with a handout, based on the work of Brene Brown (2015), below.
Top tips for new leaders:
Feedback is developmental. An effective feedback experience needs to be constructive, honest, engaged and timely. Here’s how to do it:
1. Be willing to give it; face up to any of your favourite excuses for avoiding it (it might seem rude, the person will dislike me …)
2. Check up on your motive. The ONLY acceptable one is to aid your colleague’s learning. If it is anything else, don’t do it.
3. Ask permission – May I offer you some feedback here?
4. Describe the behaviour you see – using facts not opinions. E.g. I noticed you weren’t in the room yesterday when the children arrived.
5. Describe the impact or the implications of the behaviour on/for you e.g. we missed that little Billy had a nightmare last night and was frightened about a big scary bear and you weren’t there to give him reassurance and work out how to help him start his nursery.
6. Look for connections with the person’s stated issue. So I’m wondering what is going on, I’m sensing …
7. Ask for the other person’s response – tell me more about that?
8. Agree action about whatever emerges.
This protocol works just as well for positive feedback as negative feedback. You might find it useful to have a practice with a trusted colleague before trying this on a real situation.
(Adapted from Linden Learning: “Leader and Manager as Coach”).
When done effectively, feedback can be a fantastic opportunity to check in, to re-evaluate and to set the foundation for the future growth. It can drive deeper engagement and stronger relationships between you and your team and it’s a leadership skill worth getting right if you want to be successful and allow your staff to flourish. We all need feedback. Have courage and ask your team for some in return too. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you learn about your own developmental needs.
• Brown, Brene (2015) “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead”. Penguin Life
• Cook, Jane (2013) “Leadership and Management in the Early Years”. Practical Pre-school
• Linden Learning: “Leader as Manager and Coach” (course handout)
About the author:
Ruth Mercer is a coach and consultant, with a career background in early education. Ruth is committed to creating a positive learning environment for staff, children and families. She has a successful track record of 1:1 coaching for leaders and group coaching across the maintained and PVI sector. She supports leaders and managers in developing a coaching approach in their settings through bespoke consultancy and introductory training on coaching and mentoring for all staff.
Virtual course forthcoming: Onwards and Upwards – Becoming an Effective Leader in the EYFS (6 half-day sessions over 6 months). Suitable for EYFS leads in school, nursery school teachers and reception teachers. Please email for further details, to book a space or request a bespoke option for your school/setting.