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In the first part of this short series, we looked at how mentoring can help in early years settings and how different staff members may need mentoring, be they new starters, apprentices or more established staff taking on new roles. We also looked at the quality of the feedback that mentors give and how that can be improved by being more targeted to the situation and more specific for the person. Mostly, these conversations are pleasant, consisting largely of ‘even better if’ suggestions. However, occasionally, you may have to have a more serious or difficult conversation with the mentee, and we’ve given you some pointers below about how to do this successfully.   

What the problem? 

Inevitably, even with the best trainees, there will come a time when you need to address an issue, correct a misunderstanding, or draw something to their attention that you or they may feel is a negative or serious issue. Safeguarding issues cannot be left to resolve themselves, for example, and need to be picked up straight away and dealt with properly. But there are many reasons why trainees may get something wrong or not do it exactly as you would like, and the trick here it to try to understand the whole situation so that you can unpick any misconceptions and redress any lack of knowledge before wading in with a tirade of everything they did wrong! People don’t start apprenticeships knowing everything you need them to know – they are on a learning journey with you.  

So, if you need to deal with a delicate issue, consider these questions first: 

  1. Was the student’s actions/behaviour due to a lack of knowledge? If you put someone in a car and tell them to drive, but you haven’t told them which is the brake, clutch or accelerator, you can’t expect them to stop at a red light! If this is the case, then you can approach this from the standpoint of “I think we may have a slight misconception here that we need to clear up” or “We may need to go over some of our previous training again to make sure that you have remembered all the relevant things here.”  
  2. Was the intention behind the unwanted action a good one? A lot of us do things from time to time that with the right intention, but the way go about doing them is perhaps not the best one. If this is the case, then you can approach the situation from the point of view of “I can see what you were trying to do here, and that was good, but perhaps you might consider XYZ instead because ….” 
  3. Do they just need more practice to master the skill?  If this is the case, then remember that everyone is different and learns in different ways and at different rates. Remember to praise their effort rather than focus solely on the outcome and tell them what they do well first, not just that they put the nappy on the wrong way round. Did they do a good job of building rapport with the child first, putting them at ease? Did they clean the child well and follow your procedures for nappy disposals etc? If they did, then you can praise that, then ask them to practice what they need to do better – perhaps on a doll so that they feel more confident.  

Each of these approaches recognises that there is something missing from the trainee’s knowledge or skills, but all are couched in terms that also offer a solution, and a solution that you can work through together. It will not feel like you are pointing the finger of blame at them, which can cause a lot of distrust, ill will and ultimately, a breakdown of the relationship.  

How to handle serious misconduct  

If there has been a serious breach and the apprenticeship or person’s employment is in jeopardy, then you should still use the above criteria, but think also about the following: 

  1. Do you need to include other people in the discussion, such as a line manager, setting owner, or Designated Safeguarding Lead? Make sure you are prepared to answer questions about your own role as mentor, as well as that of your mentee.  
  2. Remember the reason you need to have the conversation is to help the person do a better job and to work together to find a solution. Even if you feel that the solution is that the person would be better suited to a working in a differ job entirely, your approach should be that you are helping them, in a similar way that you would help a child to manage their poor behaviour from a place of compassion not revenge.  
  3. Take time to understand the facts in the full situation and collect information from colleagues if you need to.  
  4. Listen to all sides of the story and really seek to understand what went wrong without jumping to conclusions and looking at your own actions too – were there policies that were missed, not fit for purpose or was your training inadequate in some way?  
  5. Keep your composure and remain professional, using a calm tone of voice and choosing your words carefully. Avoid emotive language and talk about the behaviour rather than attacking them as a person.  
  6. Depending on the situation, you may want/need to have another neutral observer in the room as a witness to what is said and/or to record the details for your records. In certain circumstances, the other person may request or have a right to this too, such as having a union or legal representative with them.  
  7. Make sure you follow your own policies and procedures for any disciplinary action you need to take, which means you should already have robust and appropriate policies in place for dealing with staff, complaints, or disciplinary procedures in advance.  

Hopefully, mentoring will be a positive and productive working relationship for early years settings that benefits everyone, and with good training, effective mentoring and support, difficult situations will be rare.  

Mentoring is always about helping someone get from where they are currently, to where they want to be, whether that is about their skills, experience or knowledge, and good mentoring will undoubtedly play a large part in determining the successful outcome for the mentee.  

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