One of the most important aspects of leadership is recognising when, where and how things could be improved. In the context of a nursery, leaders are constantly assessing what is happening in the setting and how there might be room for improvement.
Over this two-part column, we will look at three principles that can guide you through the process of making improvements:
- Careful observation and reflection
- Collaborative reflection and dialogue
- Action planning
We will look at the first two aspects in this part, and we will return to the key ingredients of action planning in next month’s column.
Careful observation and reflection
Imagine you notice that interactions around lunchtime in a toddler room are quite fraught. During the 30 minutes when lunch is served to the toddlers, educators appear to be quite flustered and interactions are tense. Children are encouraged to rush through their meal in order to move from one part of the routine to the next. There are few conversations over the meal at all, let alone conversations about the food. Educators begin to wipe down the tables and clear items away before all of the children have finished eating.
Looking at this scene as a manager, you might be tempted to rush in with a solution. For example, you might say immediately to yourself “lunch time is simply not long enough, we need to dedicate more time in the day to the routines around eating so that everyone can relax”.
However, this is only one possible route to take and it might not be the right approach for the particular educators and children involved. Careful observation and reflection are needed in order to understand more about the situation, particularly from the perspective of those actually involved in it every single day. Rather than watching the lunch routine a single time, you might:
- Make a point of observing lunch time over the course of a fortnight, every day, so that you see how the routine changes depending on who is in the room or what food is being served. It is unlikely that events unfold in exactly the same way every day.
- Ask questions of those who are involved. You could ask both the educators and the children. To the educators you might say: “how do you find this part of the day?” and a similar question to the children, such as “do you like your food? Do you like eating here at nursery?” and see what responses you get. You might be surprised to find that some educators like the ‘busy-ness’ of this part of the day, that it makes them feel useful and the time goes more quickly when they are busy. They might be resistant to slowing down.
- Ask questions of yourself too. You have had an immediate reaction, which is to think and feel that something needs to changed. But where has that reaction come from? Why is it a problem that there is a sense of rush around lunch? Why is it an issue that children are not engaging in conversations as they eat, or learning more about the food? Unpicking these questions will not only help you gain a deeper understanding of the situation, they will also help you to think about the alternatives and to begin to foster a vision of how things might be different.
- Taken together, these actions of careful observation and reflection will create a sense of space around your decision-making and enable you to take actions informed by the data all around you.
Collaborative reflection and dialogue
Once you have a deeper understanding of the issues yourself, you will want to start a dialogue with your team about what you have noticed and how things might need to change. Ideally, this would happen in a team meeting with time set aside specifically for the issue you have identified. Rather than rushing to the solution that you have in mind, you could begin the dialogue in an open way that gathers others into the decision-making.
This might be something like: “I have noticed that lunch time in the toddler room feels quite rushed and that there is little time for sustained interactions with the children, including noticing and talking about the food together. I think this might be a missed opportunity because if we can have meaningful interactions with children about their food, they will come to enjoy food as part of our community – and they will also learn some really important things about healthy eating as part of a healthy life.”
Now it’s time to hear what others think as a team. How much desire is there in the team for change relating to this issue? Is this something that everyone can get behind? You might find that from the team’s perspective, other issues are much more pressing and they will resent having to deal with this particular issue before other parts of the day are tackled first. Of course, there is a balance to strike between your perspective of what is most important and the rest of the team’s, but it is essential to know just how much buy-in you are working with. If everyone is pushing back against the change, it is unlikely to be easy and you will need to work out how important this is to you.
If the team is receptive to change, the collaborative brainstorming can begin. You might have become attached to a single solution – in this example, perhaps that lunch time should just be longer – but in working with others and inviting in their suggestions, you are likely to find that there are multiple ways to tackle the issue. Together, you can find what you want to experiment with in order to see what effect it has. The team might think that experimentation is needed in relation to:
- When in the day lunch is served
- Who serves lunch
- Who clears up
- How involved the children are in serving, clearing
- Where lunch is served and what else the space is used for
Once you have a concrete aspect in the situation that you all agree to change and monitor, the next step is action planning. We will look at the key ingredients of great action planning in part two of this column.
About the author:
Dr Mona Sakr is Senior Lecturer in Education and Early Childhood. As a researcher in Early Years (EY) provision, she has published extensively on creative, digital and playful pedagogies including the books ‘Digital Play in Early Childhood: What’s the Problem?’ (Sage) and ‘Creativity and Making in Early Childhood: Challenging Practitioner Perspectives’ (Bloomsbury).
Mona's current research is an exploration of pedagogical, organisational and community leadership in EY and how leadership can be more effectively developed across EY. Current funded research includes a Nuffield Foundation project looking at online leadership development across the EY sector, a BELMAS project looking at leadership in the baby room of nurseries and a BERA project examining ethnicity in the early years workforce.
Forthcoming books (include an introduction to Social Leadership in Early Childhood Education and Care (written with June O’Sullivan, CEO of London Early Years Foundation), and an edited volume on EY pedagogical leadership around the globe.