**This blog post is all about the real settling in journey for a child in my class. His name has been changed.**
Picture it, Bradford, 2019. Little Harry appears on our system as turning 3 years old and it's time for a home visit. We dash across to meet him and his mum but when we arrive Harry is sadly in bed. Mum brings Harry to nursery the next day and he is very excited about all of the wonders around him. He plays happily away from Mum. Wahey, we're thinking, this is going to be a quick settling in. Oh boy, were we wrong!!
Harry started coming to our Nursery in April. His brother attends in Reception and since we operate as a base 4 days a week we knew he would have a familiar face to support him. On the first day we were quietly confident that this child would just come in and get on, no problem. On the second day we distracted Harry whilst mum hung his coat up but then snuck out of the door! The lack of English was a problem here as mum thought she was to go home. I wanted her to hide around the corner for a moment, out of sight (hopefully out of mind.) Harry did not appreciate this and after only 20 or so seconds started to cry and kick. Familiar?
Typically the reality of the settling in process is quite far removed from the theory. The theory tells us that a child should develop an attachment/relationship with a key person in the setting. Ideally the child would choose that person themselves and slowly they would distance themselves from the parent (this could take minutes or months) and eventually they would say goodbye to their parent and spend the time with the key person who they now trusted. Well that sounds lovely!
In practice it's another story. Some settings do follow this but the majority I have worked with do not. This isn't due to lack of training on practitioners part. There are very real reasons why settling in cannot follow the theory in the day to day. Perhaps parents are working and have only got a short period of time to support settling their child in. Parents have talked to me about taking a week off work to settle their child and I've wondered what would happen if it took longer? Sometimes parents aren't engaged at all and don't want to put the time into settling the child.
And there are those times where practitioners think it is best for the child to experience a short period of isolation and hurt for the greater long term benefits of attending nursery.
I recently attended the Childcare Expo in London and there was a wonderful seminar by Penny Tassoni. If you don't know about her I highly suggest you watch some of her videos on youtube because she has a magnetic style. (Click here)
Her seminar (Settling in without tears) was about supporting children in this settling in process by following very strict rules which she believes has a proven track record.
1) Child and parents will play with the key person around. After a little while the parent begins to disengage in the play (e.g. if this is a game for the next round the parent just watches.)
2) Child continues to play with the key person with the parents nearby. The parent will stand up and get something e.g. pick up a fallen toy or their handbag. (Typical behaviour seen at home).
3) Child continues to play with the key person with parent alongside at first. The parent extends step 2 by going further, perhaps to the kitchen to get something (out of sight).
4) Child plays alongside the key person and the parent leaves to get something out of sight for a longer period of time. Repeat this but increase the time that the parent is out of the room.
You can view this guidance on the Pacey website here too (I highly recommend Pacey to everyone I meet as a trustworthy source of advice)
I cannot stress enough how important it is that parents understand that once the key person takes over that they are to be a 'boring person.' I.e. that the key person will get something for the child, the key person will help them use the toilet etc.
She also talked about the role of the Key person and how children with siblings or family members in the same setting can sometimes use that familiar child as the emotional pillar (i.e the key person.) So whilst we think a child has settled when that familiar person is removed, the confidence just crumbles away to reveal a child with no attachment or relationship with staff.
Now trying it with Harry:
Noticing that Harry was not best pleased that mum wasn't hanging about (tears and teeth marks to prove it) and with this seminar fresh in my mind, I was determined to try this as an approach to avoid him becoming so upset.
Several frantic phone calls later mum finally returned and I explained the plan going forward. Playing with her child and showing him the setting wasn't tricky for her. But for parents, taking the advice to allow the key person to take over and become the 'boring person' wasn't easy. Mum wanted to help her child, even if that meant simply telling him to 'go and play.' Eventually after a few weeks of reminding mum that she must be THE MOST boring person in the world, we had a breakthrough. Harry went into the Reception classroom to play with his brother.
At this point I asked mum if she could wait in the kitchen (we have a separate kitchen area in the nursery which is a room but fully visible through a window). Harry had separated from mum but hadn't done so with a key person or an adult, but instead with his brother. Uh-oh, his brother was acting as the key person here.
We continued the routine of mum going to the kitchen for a few days whilst I spent time with him in the provision. His brother was still about but this did unsettle him a little bit and he would run back to the kitchen crying for mum. We opened the door together to see mum who was cleaning and cooking (literally!). She did this because this is what she does at home and he knows this.
After a few more days we managed to get mum to wait in a secondary room next door to Reception, again one with a sink where she 'cleaned' whenever he checked for her.
After what feels like 17 millions years, a good dozen grey hairs and several afternoon naps (mine, not Harry's!) Harry's mum has started to go home for most of the session. Harry is still with me a lot of the time and needs mum to stick about for the first 40 minutes. But he has a solid routine and he uses me as his key person. After all, that's what I am there for!
I have only ever had two children who have taken this long to settle in my teaching career. These children are rare but we must spend time supporting them as much as possible because they deserve the same opportunities as their peers. The damage done if a child is forced to separate too early can be costly. (See attachment theory, ACEs etc.)
And I am grateful to Penny Tassoni for having such a structured approach to this. But there is a cost to following this approach. Parents can become frustrated and stop bringing their child. In a time of austerity, tight budgets and increased competition, most nurseries could argue that this poses a risk because a family could easily go down the road to a nursery which separates on day one.
The balance is difficult.
P.s. Harry has got into a routine of bringing a treat such as a gingerbread man to school everyday. One for me, one for him. As a settling in tool, I don't really mind;)