From surviving to thriving – emotions in action
Early years settings continue to be under pressure. The impact of the Covid pandemic has threatened sustainability, raised safeguarding concerns about children and led to increased sickness absence or self-isolation of staff. This has been compounded by constant changes in regulations and expectations. Leaders and practitioners are expected to manage a level of flexibility and creativity far beyond anything experienced before.
It has been an enormous challenge to maintain high-quality learning experiences for young children. Yet, early years teachers and practitioners have risen to this challenge, putting the needs and interests of the children first and developing positive working relationships with families, many of whom are under enormous pressure.
Work in the early years field is never just a job. It is a vocation. Practitioners literally ‘take their children home’ with them in their planning and preparation and there is usually at least one child they are holding in mind. The pandemic has made this worse, and it is usually the children with erratic or poor attendance who concern them most. The commitment to the children often goes unrecognised and can leave staff feeling undervalued.
Over the past twenty years there has been progress in public understanding of mental health and well-being and has accelerated in recent months due to the pandemic. MIND, the leading charity in this field says we all have ‘mental health’ in the same way we have ‘physical health’ and changes to these states go up and down frequently. Most people experience mental distress at some point in their lives – experiences that produce a stress, sadness or anxiety that we are not sure we can cope with. For most this is temporary. For people diagnosed with a mental health condition, the recovery can be more complex. By reaching their own decisions about what works for them and with the support of family and friends, many manage their mental health well.
Looking after yourself
I am privileged to work with early years staff at all levels. The coaching conversations we have allow space and time for practitioners to talk about their mental and emotional states, without feeling judged. Leaders are recognising the importance of enabling staff to have some valuable time away from their rooms to take stock, breathe and be heard. This can be through supervision, mentoring, coaching all within an open culture of safeguarding.
Emotions in Action
An Emotions in Action Matrix (mindspring) (fig 1) helps people organise their understanding about emotions and the important link with energy. It can be used either as part of team training or in a 1:1 coaching session. I ask coachee participants to plot the amount of time spent in each zone in an average week. There has been a shift over the past year or so where more people are identifying with the Surviving Zone and listing triggers that take them there very quickly. We look at a forthcoming day or week and see what triggers there are that move them from positive to negative emotions. The aim is to help reduce this pattern and attempt to keep practitioners in the Thriving Zone.
Once a coache is aware of their triggers, we can spend time developing personal strategies to allow them to move back to the Thriving Zone effectively.
Practitioners’ personal strategies to help them thrive:
“If I have to have a difficult conversation with a parent, I go to the bathroom, take some deep breaths and brush my hair before the meeting. It just gives me a few seconds to take stock. The breathing really helps.” (SENCo)
“When I have to supervise a challenging member of staff I find an uncluttered space. Even tidying the space beforehand helps me feel more in control. Then I make us both a hot drink and I cradle my warm cup in my hands as I listen and respond.” (Deputy Manager)
“When I have too many things on my list, I visualise a big sticky ball of spaghetti and start to unwind it, one strand at a time. It will never go away but I can stop it getting all caught up inside me” (Teacher)
“Fresh air and good company really helps. I ask a trusted colleague to walk to the river with me, we sit and look at the water and I talk through all my stuff. It makes me feel lighter.” (Room Leader)
“I wear my lucky shoes when I have a big day. When I get anxious, I peep down and my feet and cannot help smiling. The shoes fill me with joy and bring me back down to ground.” (Nursery Manager)
With the Emotions in Action Grid, it is important to remember you cannot spend all your time in survival mode, otherwise there will be a danger of slipping into the Burnout Zone, where low energy and negative emotions are present. If this happens, there must be a period in the Recharge Zone to enable the body to rest, reflect and replenish. I have met practitioners who are recognising their burnout and these are some comments on how they recharge.
Practitioners’ personal strategies to help them recharge
“Sometimes I take a whole weekend off and just walk in the woods with my dog and my family, eat good food and watch films to keep my thoughts at bay.”
“I have been trying mindfulness and yoga. 20 minutes a day recharges me enough to last till the summer holidays, when I take two weeks off.”
“I needed a complete break and left my job. I’m only 26 and I still have a whole life to lead. I now sell vintage clothes and work at a climbing wall. I may return to the classroom one day.” (Teacher)
How emotions in action (mindspring) can work for you
- Look at the two axis on the diagram. The vertical axis represents the energy expended whilst feeling the emotions from low to high. The horizontal axis represents the quality of the emotions from negative to positive.
- Remember all the emotions are useful and appropriate in response to given situations. Think of examples when each zone might be appropriate for you.
- Think what you might be doing when in each of the four zones. Who might you be with and what emotions are triggered for you?
- Reflect on the emotions that you experience in each quadrant.
- Note the amount of time you spend in each zone on an average week
- What are the common triggers that prompt negative feelings or reactions that cause movement from the Thriving to Surviving Zone.
- Look at your day ahead. What meetings or interactions may cause your triggers?
- Develop your own strategies for moving back from Surviving to Thriving.
- How could you spend more time in the Thriving Zone?
- How could you build more Recharge time?
- How could you model the Thriving and Recharge emotions more for your colleagues?
Emotions in Action Grid available from: https://mindspring.uk.com/
- Early years staff wellbeing; a resource for managers and teams
- How to promote wellbeing and tackle the causes of work-related mental health problems
- Find yourself a coach http://www.lindenlearning.org
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.
Ruth is currently writing about coaching with a playful approach.