Early years voices: Releasing the pressure on Early Years managers

Ben Bausor and Lewis Fogarty of Always Growing share strategies to de-stress setting managers
A photo of Ben Bausor and Lewis Fogarty, the directors of Always Growing, with the title "Releasing the pressure on Early Years managers"
February 24, 2023
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There’s a show-round arriving in a few hours, invoices need to go out, the lunch cover is off sick, a parent is ringing, the Butterfly Room leader has just handed in her notice, and there’s that awkward issue to address with the new apprentice.

Being a manager in an Early Years setting can be a carefully curated plate-spinning act, where it feels like just one false move can send everything crashing down. And, when you’re the one trying to keep all those plates in the air, it can be really hard to let any of them go. It’s stressful. It’s not healthy, and it’s not good for your business. 

That’s why Ben and Lewis, the directors of Always Growing, figured out a better way to do things

Ben Bausor, an educational consultant and mentor, and Lewis Fogarty, a lecturer in education leadership at Brunel University, are on hand to show you how to delegate, de-stress, and get your time back. As directors of a 3 site nursery group, they’re putting these leadership strategies into practice every day.

And here’s how you can too.

What does it look like to be a nursery manager at Always Growing?

Well, actually, they don’t have any. 

But they have plenty of advice for setting managers because of the way their responsibilities are divided.

“The term ‘manager’ is too narrow and too limited to describe what it is to lead,” says Lewis “It’s too much of a role for one person.” So what do they have instead?

A chart explaining the roles of the five levels of leadership at Always Growing

“This layering of responsibility, with a defined structure, means we’re playing to everyone’s skill strengths.” explains Ben.

This works well for a small group, as they can share resources (and costs) across more sites. The provision leaders don’t have to worry about fees, for example, as they’re focussing on great practice and supporting their team. The LEOs can focus on delivering training and staff development across the sites, as they’re not having to write policies. And finally the directors, Ben and Lewis, have time to develop Always Growing’s pedagogy, as they’re not expected to be in the rooms. Each role has different responsibilities so everything gets done.

But what if you’re just one setting? As Ben notes, there are hundreds of managers trying to do everything that he and Lewis, the provision leaders, and the LEOs do. So, although you mightn’t be able to replicate exactly the same model, you can delegate and play to your team’s strengths. Ben calls this ‘working at level’.

“It’s a bit corporate, but settings could do with a bit more of that,” says Ben “We’re a small group, but even if you’re a term-time only, one site, preschool, this could still work for you. Look at where people’s interests and skills are and share the load.”

And why? Because that’s the only way to give yourself some breathing room, finally get on top of your to-do list, and hopefully, release some of the pressure. 

Ready to get started? Here’s how…

Step 1: Take a step back

You’re never going to see the full picture when you’re down in the nitty-gritty details of each day. Make a concerted effort to take a small step back from the setting.

Ben suggests you start by taking just one morning at home. Plan it with your staff so everyone knows what’s happening and ratios are still being met, but use that time out of the setting to refocus on what’s really a priority and what isn’t.

“Often when you’re busy, you just don’t know where to start,” explains Ben, “You continually just maintain things at that level. But instead of spinning all those plates, put a couple down so you can focus on something specific. You don’t have to do everything all the time.

However, if taking a morning out really is too much, instead start with some set focus time in the office or a quiet workspace. Again, it is easier said than done but set the boundary with your team that you need this time free from interruptions and trust them to carry on without you. 

“Setting a boundary teaches people how to treat you,” explains Lewis. “If you’re clear about what you’re OK with, people will treat you accordingly. If you always do things for your team, they’ll grow to expect that, then when you’re not there, they won’t know how to do it.”

And what should you do with this free time? On to step 2…

Step 2: Time for some self-reflection 

Now you have some time to focus, you want to make the most of it. 

To start with, reflect on what needs to change. As Lewis advises, there’s no self-improvement without self-awareness, so consider the changes you can make to how you work or what you’re doing. Reflect on your own areas for development:

  • Where are you causing a bottleneck in tasks? 
  • How could you be more efficient?
  • Could you use tools to take care of jobs that are exhausting your time? 
  • Where could someone else do what you do?
  • How could you improve your communication with your team?

While this may be challenging, Ben explains that knowing where you’re contributing to a problem means knowing immediately where you can be the solution.

“Recognise what you yourself can control,” says Lewis, “You can’t control government policy, but you can control how you treat your staff and how you prioritise your to-do list.”

An Early Years manager and a team member sit together on a sofa. They are both looking at a laptop

Step 3: Tackling your to-dos

Next, get to work. Lewis recommends prioritising your to-do list by splitting it into three: Do, Delegate, and Delete. If it takes less than a minute, do it immediately and tick it off. If someone else can contribute and lighten the load, delegate to them. If it’s been on the list for three months and you haven’t done it - is it really that vital? Delete it.

Another way to prioritise how you use your time is to split out your to-do list into ‘Must, Should, Could’. Ben credits his mum for this technique! Take tasks that are urgent or essential to the top, then add what needs to be completed, but can wait. Finally, the ‘nice to haves’ go at the bottom. These are the things that might be useful but aren’t essential.

Step 4: Time to eat the frog

We’re all guilty of focusing on the less stressful task to convince ourselves that we’re too busy to do the more stressful one. But Lewis advises that part of leadership is being comfortable with being a bit uncomfortable, so uses the leadership analogy of eating a frog.

If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.”

So what might that look like in practice?

Ben gives the example of needing to send invoices and knowing you have to have a tough conversation with a member of staff. While it might be tempting to do the invoicing and put off the conversation, the invoicing can be done after the all staff have left. Have the conversation face to face, while the staff member is on-site and worry about the invoicing afterwards.

Step 5: Sharing the responsibility

In the previous steps we’ve talked about stepping back and delegating, so now’s the time to look at how that really works.

First, make your peace with things being done a different way. You might be lucky and the person you delegate a role to comes in and surpasses your expectations, doing everything better than you did… or they might not. But both outcomes can be ok.

Lewis explains that they’re not advocating for every manager to lower their standards, but rather for those standards to be in line with what can actually be done with the resources you have.

“Say you don’t have a beautiful notice board but the children are getting excellent teachable moments throughout the day, then that’s a brilliant thing,” says Lewis, “Be proud of that and don’t worry that the notice board isn’t looking great.” 

So how do you decide who should do what? Well, as tempting as it might be, it’s not useful to just offload the jobs you like least.

“Being a leader requires a unique skill set. But what happens is people are moved away from what they really like doing and then put in charge of other people, without training. And they have to spend less time with the children (which is the job that they excel at).”

Ben Bausor

The big ideas

- As a manager at a single-site setting, it feels like you have to do everything. But you don’t. Delegating tasks where your team really shines supports their growth and relieves the pressure on you.

- Add a priority system to your to-do list.. Ben and Lewis suggest the Can, Should, Could method, or Do, Delegate, Delete to get through the right things faster.

- You’re not alone. Make the most of networking opportunities in online forums or by teaming up with other local settings to share the load… and the cost!

Step 6: Finding out where your staff shine

Lewis advises that staff who want to be really good practitioners can take on more responsibility in the area in which they’re the most skilled. Staff meetings and group training can be an excellent way to see where your team really shine:

  • Do you have a team member who is particularly good at maths? Perhaps they could be responsible for managing the funding forms.
  • A team member who’s passionate about inclusivity? They could take on the SENDCo role.
  • Another member of staff who’s interested in photography? They could run your social media accounts.

“People think they can’t afford, either financially or their time, to do CPD and staff meetings,” says Lewis, “Well actually, you can’t afford not to. It might take an hour, for which you have to pay everyone, but think of the time it saves down the line.” 

Now here’s the tricky part - how will you afford to pay for all these extra roles your team are taking on?

Well, there are two ways to go about this:

  • If you can afford to, simply pay your team more for these extra responsibilities 
  • Find another way to compensate them

Ben and Lewis do a little of each. 

“Our structure is an investment,” explains Ben, “We could remove the LEO role and save ourselves that salary and Lewis and I would find a way to do that job…but we wouldn’t do it as well as they do.”

But if that’s simply not feasible for your setting, Ben and Lewis also offer their team more time in return for further responsibility. For example, their SENDCo has her usual PPA time and then an extra PPA time, purely for SENDCo work.

A group of Early Years teachers of all genders are having a meeting. They are sitting on beanbags and are all touching hands in the centre of the circle

Step 7: Sharing the mental load

While it’s comparatively simple to delegate specific tasks to your team, as a manager, sharing the mental load of running an Early Years setting may feel considerably harder.

“It can be a lonely place, being the person in charge,” says Ben, “Especially when you feel like you have to have all the answers.”

However, help is at hand.

In Slough, near the Always Growing settings, there’s an Early Years managers group run by the Local Authority, so check out your options locally. And Ben, Lewis, and hundreds of other setting managers share problems and advice on online forums like Facebook groups.

“Don’t worry about asking for support,” says Lewis, “Sometimes issues need to be hashed out a little bit. If you think that shows weakness, it doesn’t. It shows strength in that you’re willing to ask for help. Don’t worry about what people think. Be proud that you’re asking for help.” 

Plus, networking in this way can help save more than just your sanity. For example, by combining training sessions with other local settings, you can half the cost. Or, could you and another local setting employ an administrator together and pay their salary jointly?

As a member of the Early Years Experts and Mentors Programme, Ben supports managers day to day and hopes that they will become more comfortable with asking for help.

“It’s ok to reach out and seek some guidance,” says Ben, “The sector needs to stick together and we can help each other. You aren’t going to get it right every single day. Reach out for help.”

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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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