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“Managers and owners, we have so many things that are ‘urgent’. Things that are interrupting us multiple times every day. The doorbell rings. A sock’s gone missing. The milk is being delivered. It’s hard, it’s hard to deal with the important stuff that helps you to manage those daily interruptions. It gets to the end of the week and you feel like all you’ve done is look for socks.”
From her first experience with the early years in the 90s, helping reopen a kindergarten class in Kuwait after the Gulf War, Roopam Carroll has tread an interesting path towards running her own nursery.
From Kuwait, it was into primary education, before a job at her father’s GP practice led her to a ten-year career in the NHS, working in a wide range of senior management roles. Then, having graduated from her MBA with Distinction at Nottingham University Business School, she had her first child. That was when the early years came calling again.
Now she owns her own setting in Nottingham, has developed multiple early years apps, and runs her successful leadership consultancy The Nice Boss. One thing her career has prepared her well for is fighting the Goliath that is the infamous early years workload. Paperwork, admin, distractions – here’s how she finds the time to be the nice boss herself, and deal with those ‘big picture’ tasks that usually get lost in the chaos.
Being able to focus on the stuff that matters to you is about more than just finding a way through the paperwork mountain. As the Early Year’s Alliance’s Minds Matter report drew attention to last year, stress and poor mental health are only on the up for staff at early years settings.
“Running an early years setting can be very stressful,” says Roopam, “and I think that’s partly because a lot of managers haven’t been given the mentors or tools to properly manage their huge workloads.”
It’s no secret that external factors like recruitment numbers and the catastrophic underfunding of early years have contributed massively to this environment. But finding strategies that give you the time and headspace to do the work that matters to you is one of the most important ways you can reduce stress and improve the sustainability of your setting.
“When I first took over my nursery I was in there all day,” explains Roopam. “Dealing with the operational management, all the day-to-day stuff – when you get too stuck into that you just don’t have the time to develop your business.”
Things like marketing, finances, and the tutoring of your staff can easily take a backseat in this environment. When you and your team are spread too thinly, juggling too many balls – that’s when the areas where you can really add value begin to suffer. This is when Roopam started actively outsourcing tasks that distracted her and her team from their main strengths.
“Our core strength is working with the children,” says Roopam. “Cooking, for example, that’s not our team’s core strength. Providing amazing nutrition is important, and so we don’t cook, we use a caterer.”
Far too many managers get caught up in trying to improve weaknesses, to work on problem areas. Instead, Roopam says, you should focus on what you can already do well.
“A real key thing for any team is figuring out your expertise and strengths,” she says, “and not doing the stuff yourself that you’re not good at.”
“We provide great childcare to help our future citizens, future architects and doctors and artists. We’re busy nurturing those, but also we’re enabling their families to achieve their ambitions. Being able to work, to study, or just having spare time for themselves.”
- Roopam Carroll, nursery owner, manager and consultant, Beeston Nursery and The Nice Boss
One of Roopam’s key tools is something called a priority matrix. She talks about it here, on her personal blog.
“You start by writing your to-do list, and then categorise them by whether they’re important or not, and whether they’re urgent or not,” she explains.
From here, you can place all your tasks somewhere on a grid with four sections. One for urgent and important, one for urgent but not important, one for not urgent but important, and one for tasks that are neither urgent nor important.
This way, you can weed out the “nice to do” jobs that we all fall back on,” explains Roopam on her blog. “You can move the non-urgent jobs back to a time when you can deal with them properly. You can bring forward the stuff you aren’t keen on, but really should do.”
“We are so dependent on ratios,” says Roopam, “if we don’t have the staff in then we can’t operate. And so of course there are still times when I’m pulled in – but I don’t let that become a habit.”
It might not be a luxury every manager can afford, but Roopam says getting stuck in-ratio all day will just mean you’re in the worst of both worlds.
“If you need to do paperwork or funding, then you can’t do that while you’re in with the children,” says Roopam. “When we’re in numbers with the children we need to be focusing on them or otherwise we’re setting a poor example, ignoring them because we’re trying to do something else. Multitasking is just a massive myth.”
That’s why Roopam will mostly stay out of ratios, and also tries to be supernumerary when it comes to her deputy managers.
“My senior team do spend lots of time in the room, but they’re there to work alongside the staff,” explains Roopam. “They’re supernumerary, and that gives them time to do their admin, and do their main job, which is to develop and coach the staff.”
“We always divide our day into half-hour blocks,” explains Roopam. “This means we can schedule in blocks every day where staff have that time away from the children to do the stuff that they need to do. We have three deputies, one who is more senior, and we’ll always have one of them or myself on duty.”
Nursery days can be like rollercoasters, with the constant chaos occasionally punctuated with moments of calm.
But some of those more chaotic moments tend to happen at the same time every day. Drop off time, pick-up time, lunch. Finding solutions to reducing stress and time wasted during those most challenging times is a great way to get time back for what matters.
“Children need to be delivered into our care, we need to accept them, and it needs to be as smooth as possible,” says Roopam. “That’s one of the times when it gets a bit busy and I don’t want to sound like an advert for Famly but it’s clearly the software for us.”
“It’s made things a lot smoother when you have 50 children coming in. It used to be really difficult with paper registers, but with Famly it’s easy – we can register them and then they’re all booked in and invoiced. The parents can also give us an idea of who will pick the child up, and with people’s busy lives it makes things a lot easier.”
“The pickup is the biggest challenge because we have to make sure the children are ready. That means actually making sure they’re happy and settled and their coats, shoes, and socks are ready. If you talk to any nursery manager or member of staff, socks are the biggest problem we have. Our two-year-olds just love hiding them. Yesterday a child had hidden some hair clips behind a rock in the garden, and we could see mum was getting really impatient while we hunted high and low for them.”
- Roopam Carroll, nursery owner, manager and consultant, Beeston Nursery and The Nice Boss
“My role is to deal with the big picture,” explains Roopam, “and I can’t work out a better solution to a problem if I’m too involved. It’s easy to get drawn into that day-to-day busyness and not to do the stuff that really matters.”
For Roopam, that’s where delegation comes in. These days she tells us she spends less than 20% of my time actually in the setting, and that’s because she’s developed a senior leadership team that is confident and capable of running the nursery.
“After that, it’s about delegating to the right people,” says Roopam. “But when people are delegated to, you must make sure you give them the time to do it. Otherwise, you’re not delegating, you’re just adding pressure.”
“Social media has been really good for me,” says Roopam. “I have my own Facebook group – The Nice Boss Collaborative, and I’m part of the Day Nursery Owners group. I also work closely with other local owners and managers, and that’s quite unusual. But actually what we need to do is not to be scared of the nursery down the road but work with them to raise the standard.”
Roopam’s most important tip isn’t about matrixes or delegation. Strengths or socks. It’s about taking the time to recharge.
“Make sure you take 30 minutes every single day to do something really lovely that you want to do,” she says. “It could be a walk, or crocheting, reading a magazine, cooking. Make sure you take that time to really do something for you, and make sure that your staff do as well. We all have our breaks in the setting and no one ever misses a lunch break. Because to me, that’s so important. Taking time out to refresh and recharge, not just storing it up for one big annual holiday. That’s one of my top tips.”
When it comes to much of the big picture tasks Roopam is trying to save this time for, a lot of it is spent one-on-one with her staff.
“Not as much of my day as it used to be is sitting behind a computer,” she explains “For me, it’s about talking with my staff and listening. It’s the supervisions, the chats over coffee, being able to tell me about the real challenges they’re facing so that I can use my time to find solutions. If I can uncover all those irritations then I can see what I can do to eliminate them or make them smoother.”
But having happy staff isn’t just about freeing them from irritations. For Roopam, the most important thing she and her managers can do is to help staff be really good at what they do.
“That’s where lots of managers come to me with issues,” she says. “ Because they have this idea that because staff are qualified they should know what to do. If you wanted your children to learn how to read, you wouldn’t just role-model reading. You’d break it down and think about the core skills they need. You’d assess them, and then you’d do what you can to give them those skills. Practice, reinforcement, positive praise – a lot of managers are scared of doing that with their teams. But a manager’s job is to teach their team.”
After all, investing your time into your staff is going to mean that they can better invest their time with the ones who matter the most in your setting – the children. It’s a massive job, and it comes with a lot of responsibility.
“I’m very proud of being a good employer – I’m definitely a Nice Boss. I believe that is the way that we’re going to change the world. The only way to be a good business is to have a happy staff team.”
Early Years Voices is a new series where we talk to talented childcare professionals throughout the country to spread best practice and answer some of the biggest questions facing the sector. Have something you’d like to share? Got an answer to one of the big questions? We’d love to hear from you – just email our Editor, Matt, on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.