Childcare staff retention and hiring tips

Rachel Rouse's unexpected, but powerful tip to increase staff retention: discuss quitting during the interview
Rachel Rouse on staff retention
June 14, 2024
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In a rush? Here’s a quick breakdown.

  • Early childhood education (ECE) expert Rachel Rouse shares a tip you probably haven't heard before: talk about quitting during the interview.
  • Learn how you should ask your childcare staff to quit, so that the transition is as smooth as possible for everyone, but especially the children.
  • Hear from Rachel herself in the video below, or read a summary of the conversation below

I remember the first time I was introduced to Rachel Rouse, COO at The Conscious Classroom Model, and she was casually mentioning some of the leadership skills and trainings her and Summer Picha do. There was one that instantly stood out to me and I said ‘hold up, please explain this more.”

What was that topic? Rachel said that she brought up how to quit during her interviews and onboarding. Yep, you read that right.

Consistency is so important for the children in early childhood education (ECE), and staff turnover interrupts that. So, Rachel explains that talking about quitting from the very beginning results in smoother transitions for the preschool or childcare center as a whole, and most importantly, for the children. Plus, it even leads to higher retention of childcare staff.

You can watch the conversation below, or read further for an general summary.

ECE staff are good at what they do because they care

At the beginning of our conversation, Rachel talks about the passion, the emotion and the big hearts that make early childhood staff so good at what they do - supporting young children develop into holistic, healthy and unique human beings.

Then she continues, “with having a big heart sometimes other things get really big and sometimes we take things very personally.” As a previous teacher and director, Rachel admits that one of the things she had to learn to not take personally was when a staff member quit. That, no matter how much passion and support there is, at the end of the day, it is still a job.

Once Rachel really came to terms with that, she decided that talking about quitting from the beginning would help strengthen that work relationship. But, she didn't realize just how beneficial and empowering this conversation would be for her, the staff and the children.

5 stages of a childcare staff team

Let me back up and explain how quitting is actually a a top strategy to help you retain your childcare staff. Rachel introduces the 5 stages of a team:

  • Forming
  • Storming
  • Norming
  • Performing
  • Adjourning

During the interviewing and onboarding process, Rachel would focus on the adjourning stage by encouraging them to think about what they would want to do next. Do you want to become a part of the administrative team? Is this a temporary position until you go back to school?

Then, this would provide a natural transition for Rachel to talk about the best way to quit - for the staff, the families and most importantly, the children.

So you're probably like me and wondering, what actually is the best way to quit? And, she explained how simple it really is:

  • Give a 2-week notice - at least!
  • Leave at natural transition times - for example, at the end of a school year or right before a long break
  • Control the communication - follow the process that is best for your center, like giving the families a heads up before sharing the news with the children. But make sure that the children hear it first from childcare staff, and not from family members.

Rachel quickly recognized that by talking about the adjourning stage, Rachel was able to minimize the number of storming phases - specifically a storming phase sparked by a staff member quitting suddenly, and the rest of the team stressed and overworked.

How do you talk about quitting with your childcare staff?

So, all of this made total sense to me, and I actually am surprised that it isn’t a more common practice to talk about how to quit in the interview and during onboarding. But, I was so interested to hear what the staff's reaction was when they got this question because if it was me, I know I would be caught off guard.

Rachel explained that the first time she brought it up was when she called to give the staff member their offer. She would congratulate them, and then, ask them to really think about what they could commit to before accepting the offer.

Can they commit to a full academic year? If yes, great! (Of course, unexpected things can happen, but is it their intention to stay?) Or, is this a temporary job until you figure out what you want to do next, and you’ll be applying to grad school, or other jobs, while also working at the childcare center?

Most importantly, Rachel did not say that this was a dealbreaker. Instead, she explained that it just meant she would place that staff member in a position that is a better fit for them. Further, by putting the staff member in the most appropriate position for their future goals, it also meant there would be a smoother transition for the children, when the time came.

"Consistency for the children is really important to us, so if you don’t think you’ll be able to commit for… the academic year…that you reconsider this position, or let me know so I can put you in a different space, like a floater space."

The big ideas

Rachel explains that at first, staff were taken aback. But, it was an eye-opening question and they appreciated that Rachel cared enough to ask about their personal goals. This transparency upfront from their manager allowed to feel safe to also be honest. They knew that it was okay if they couldn’t confidently commit to a specific time period.

“I’m not going to say no to you working here for 6 months…but the position I put you in is going to be different”

By making it clear that this is simply a job, and a transactional relationship, Rachel was able to create a more supportive, and welcoming environment for the childcare staff. 

"I think sometimes some of the language we use in childcare - because we are such big hearted people - is like 'we are like a family.’ And that’s true - 'I love you like a family and I want you to be here with us and, at the end of the day, this is a job, and I recognize that, and I understand that, and I have to respect that.'"
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Improving team culture at your childcare center by quitting “the right way”

By addressing the inevitability of quitting, the manager to staff relationship was immediately built on transparency. But even more, once the staff members began working, they saw that Rachel and her center really did “normalize quitting.” There were no hard feelings, and in fact, everyone’s last day was a celebration, with cake and cards.

In other words, Rachel didn't just talk about a positive, supportive environment - whether you stay or go. The childcare staff were able ot see it become a reality.

"We think we shouldn't say it out loud. We think if we do say it out loud, it will happen. If they say quit, they're going to quit. Saying it out loud takes away the power and the anxiety around it, for you and for them."

And guess what? Once Rachel began talking about quitting during the interviewing and onboarding process, she noticed so many positive changes, like:

  • About 80% of her staff would leave at a natural time, which is a lot for ECE!
  • Frequently getting more notice than 2 weeks because they planned around natural transition times.
  • Staff would actually tell their new jobs that they will not start at their new job until a natural transition time.
  • Communication about all topics, especially harder conversations, became easier.
  • Talking about quitting early on “opened up more conversational space with less defensiveness” Staff were less defensive, which meant conversations were less about complaining, and more about finding a solution.
  • Most significantly, Rachel recognized that this transparent, open environment actually resulted in higher childcare staff retention because they felt so supported.

Never stop interviewing

Of course, a manager should always prioritize retaining staff, like providing professional development opportunities, supporting mental well-being, or having consistent 1-to-1 meetings.

Still, childcare staff turnover and "storming phases” are inevitable. Rachel already talked about how talking openly about quitting in the beginning of the hiring process resulted in higher ECE staff retention. But, another way that Rachel was able to decrease the frequency and intensity of "storming phases," when staff did leave, was by always interviewing.

In early childhood education, there is always a need for a floater or a sub, or an extra set of hands or volunteer. And, turnover will happen.

So, Rachel's advice is: if you find someone who fits your center’s values, mission and is just someone you know would be a great fit, you should find a spot for them - no matter how small because you never know when you will need them full-time.

“I was always interviewing, and if I found someone that was really good, I found a place for them even if I didn't have one because someone is going to quit at some point…”

And having someone ready to go will reduce the intensity of the storming phase. By having someone ready to step in, the transition will be smoother for the staff, and most importantly, the children.

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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