Business development

Now's a good time to get rid of uniforms in early education

Ditching dress codes can be a small win to boost staff retention.
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April 20, 2022
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

• The idea of uniforms and dress codes in early education can cause a bit of friction. Some might feel they're convenient and practical, while others might find them stifling and impersonal.

• But when staff retention is a pressing issue in early education, ditching dress codes and uniforms can be an easy way to hang on to staff, by giving them more ways to feel like themselves at work.

• Down below, we'll look at how you can get that sense of a "team look," while leaving more room for everybody to express themselves however they like.

In early education, it's getting harder than ever to recruit good team members, and get them to stick around.

Could ditching the branded polo and khaki trouser uniforms be the solution?

Well, by itself, no. These staffing problems are way bigger than a dress code. But as we'll discuss, revisiting your dress code and uniform policies might be a step in the right direction toward easing the pressure of this recruitment crisis.

Imogen Edmunds, CEO of the early education HR consultancy Redwing Solutions, says the current challenges with recruiting and retaining educators ought to make us reflect on the policies that affect our teams.

"Now's the time when we really have to ask ourselves which policies are working for us, and the dress code is a classic example of that," she says. "Every time you say 'I don't want that in my setting, you're shrinking your potential labor pool. Can we really afford to do that?"

At the end of the day, how you dress should be about the children’s experience. What makes you feel best-equipped and most confident to play and explore with children, to give them the most enriching early years experience you can? And how can you strike that balance, while giving your team plenty of room express themselves at work?

That’s what we’re here to talk about.

In this piece, we’ll explore some of the most common considerations that shape dress code and uniform policies in the early education. We’ve sourced these from research and interviews with early education HR experts, and also from discussions with dozens of practitioners on social media. 

We’re not here to give you a concrete “do exactly this” answer, so much as offer some ideas that might help inform how you approach a dress code in your own setting.

Ready? Let’s get into it.

What's the point of dress codes in early education?

Deciding how everyone should dress for work is about balancing some practical considerations with your team’s personal comfort. Both of these factors are important, because they’re key parts of a bigger goal: Giving the best possible care to children.

For a dress code to feel meaningful and useful, it’s got to strike a balance between the following factors.

Practical considerations

  • Working with little ones means being ready for a split-second game of tag, crawling about on all fours, and sitting cross-legged for story time. Your clothes ought to be comfortable and able to accommodate all sorts of ways to play.
  • Early education is messy work. You shouldn’t have to worry about getting a bit of glitter glue or apple sauce on your favorite shirt.
  • If you’re doing outdoor learning, you’ve got to make sure your staff are ready for whatever the weather might bring.
  • It’s nice for families and visitors at your setting to easily tell who works there, especially if you’ve got apprentice or student team members.

Personal needs

  • Everybody feels better when they’re comfortable and happy with how they look. If you’re feeling constricted by a uniform, that could distract you from being present with the children.
  • Dressing for work should be easy. For some people, always throwing on that uniform T-shirt might make our mornings a bit simpler — or it might feel like one extra demand in your day. That’s a decision you’ve got to make based on the team at your setting.
  • Our clothes, hairstyles, tattoos and jewelry are all different ways for us to express who we are. Practitioners deserve to be their full selves, and children deserve to learn about all the different identities and backgrounds we can express through our clothing.

Ultimately, your policy needs to tie back into that fundamental question: How does this help enrich and improve children’s everyday experiences with you? As we move ahead, that’s a helpful question to evaluate what your own policy is all about.

This isn't about a branding exercise, or some abstract idea of professionalism. Your policy should be there to help your team feel comfortable and confident, so they're in the best mindset to play and learn with children.

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The big ideas

Uniforms vs. dress codes: what's the difference?

Let’s take a second to clarify the difference between uniforms and dress codes. The two are close cousins, but there are a couple important distinctions that shape what they mean for the educators on your team.

Here’s how we’ll define the two terms:

  • Uniforms refer to very specific expectations of how you should dress for work: Every staff member would have the same shirt and same trousers. This might mean a polo shirt and pressed khaki trousers, or perhaps a set of scrubs like you might see on hospital workers.
  • Dress codes set out certain rules and expectations for how you should dress, without dictating your exact outfit. Dress code guidelines might put a ban on jeans or elastic leggings, or ask staff to not wear shirts with slogans or logos on them. You might think of this as the more open-ended option.

Why it's time to ditch the dress codes

In the wider discussion of how we dress in early education, specific uniform policies are often the biggest point of friction. Here are a few of the biggest reasons why they aren’t a big hit:

  • Uniforms can feel demeaning to staff. Educators in primary schools, secondary schools and universities rarely ever encounter uniform requirements. Why should early education be different? Giving practitioners more room for self-expression and comfort is another step toward giving the sector the respect it deserves.
  • Dealing with clothing sizes and fits can feel too personal. Maybe you have a hard time finding shirts with sleeves that are long enough, or your uniform’s made of a fabric that irritates your skin. Or, maybe you just don’t feel comfortable sharing your clothing sizes with your colleagues. All these reasons are valid, and can make the prospect of uniforms uncomfortable for practitioners.
  • Uniform expenses often fall on educators. In a sector where workers are already underpaid, the cost burden of uniforms can be another detracting factor for practitioners.

This isn’t to say that uniforms are always wrong. But there are a lot of ways that a dress code can meet those same practical needs, while leaving a lot more room for your team to feel expressive and comfortable in their own clothes.

Solutions to meet everybody’s needs

So when we’re figuring out how to dress for work, how do we get everybody’s needs met? If you’re looking to implement some sort of dress code at your own Early Years setting, there are plenty of ways to make room for comfort and self-expression, while also making sure everyone is wearing what they need for the job.

Here are a few options you might want to consider:

  • Staff shirts: Wearing branded T-shirts or polo shirts gives the whole team a bit of a cohesive look, while still allowing everyone lots of room to complete their outfit however they like.
  • Aprons: An apron still gives that sense of ‘uniform,’ while allowing you to wear whatever you like underneath. Plus, it’s a great way to prevent getting glitter glue smeared all over your own clothes.
  • Name tags or lanyards: This might be the simplest way to make your team easily identifiable to parents or visitors, while still giving everyone full control to wear what they like best.

Coming to a decision as a group

At the end of the day, it’s tough to make a one-size-fits all recommendation for something like dress codes. Perhaps everybody on your team loves the idea of an embroidered staff T-shirt, or maybe everyone would rather be left to make those clothing choices on their own. Either way, you won’t know until you ask your team.

So if you’re looking to have a dress code at your setting, or just revisiting what you’ve got, it’s probably best to invite everyone to weigh in on it. That way, you can get the best understanding of everybody’s needs on each side of the balance, and work together to find a policy that fits you best.

Again, a dress code needs to speak to the bottom line: Children’s everyday experience. The best policy is the one that helps your staff feel comfortable and confident about the work they do, and the care they give to the children in your care.

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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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