Data, not drama: How to create a positive culture for your childcare staff

Summer Picha's tips on how to handle the more emotional moments
Summer Picha on creating a positive childcare center culture
June 26, 2024
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In a rush? Here's a quick breakdown:

  • Early childhood expert and CEO of The Conscious Classroom Model, Summer Picha, introduces this theme of "data, not drama."
  • Working with young children can be emotional, chaotic and no day is the same. This can lead to a dramatic environment.
  • Summer talks about how she, as a former Director, helped her staff and herself to focus on the data and regulate emotions in the heat of hte moment to help foster a more positive and supportive work environment.

When I first connected with Summer Picha, the CEO of The Conscious Classroom Model, I asked if she had any specific topics she would be interested in talking to Famly about, and she brought up this idea of “data, not drama.”

As Summer’s colleague, Rachel Rouse, also mentioned - early childhood education is an emotional job. Not all bad emotions, it can be fun, rewarding, filled with laughter, and successes. But, it can also be stressful, chaotic and after all - the children are literally learning how to regulate their emotions.

Summer talks about how to minimize the drama and create a positive environment in early childhood education (ECE) for the teachers and staff, which inevitably, will create a nurturing and supportive environment for the young children. 

Not only is Summer an ECE expert and consultant, but her previous experience as a teacher and director of multiple preschools, makes her expertise personal and relatable - and humorous! (You’ll see what I mean when you listen to our conversation below!)

Feel free to read a summary of our conversation below. Or - even better - watch this short video and hear Summer explain how you can be a better ECE leader, and create a positive culture for your childcare staff by focusing on the data, and not the drama.

Let’s start nerdy: 3 parts of the brain

Psychology is critical to early childhood education because it is an industry where humans are working with humans, and these humans are at various stages of brain development. Summer explains the three parts of our brain: survival response, emotion, and logic and reasoning. 

Many of us know the three survival responses: fight, flight and freeze. But, Summer actually mentions two others: fawn and fib. Fawn is like that feeling of being caught like a “deer in headlights,” and a fib is lying, but not to be malicious, but because it was the immediate response due to feelings of anxiousness and fear.

“Our brain’s job is to keep us safe, not to make us happy,” which is why our survival responses are so strong. 

After survival is the emotional part of the brain, and last our logic and reasoning. Logic and reasoning is not developed until our mid 20s. This means the little ones are only existing in survival and emotional brain. 

But still, even though adults have developed their logic and reasoning, it’s easier to respond and live in the survival and emotional parts of our brain - in other words, to get caught up in the drama.

Hence, the term data, not drama.

With the rollercoaster of emotions, and the pressure of caring for kiddos who can’t take care of themselves, a day at preschool or at a childcare center can be full of drama. And it’s easy for ECE staff to get caught up in the dramatic moment and forget about logic and reasoning.

“Even with owners, directors, leadership teams, or even colleagues working with eachother…If we’re operating out of our survival response, we can’t learn anything new, we can’t take things in. This isn’t the time to be teaching or having these deep conversations. And so, that’s where a lot of the drama comes from.”

The big ideas

Summer tells us how to get stronger at tapping into our logic and reasoning when it feels like we’re surrounded by drama. 

This is especially important for directors, managers and ECE leaders because reducing the drama will only create a more positive culture for your childcare staff and more effective teamwork - which of course, is also the best for the little ones and their growth and development.

stressed child and teacher

How can a leader create a positive environment in ECE?

As an ECE leader, it is important for you to take the lead in cultivating a positive work environment for your childcare staff. This positivity will spread wide creating a welcoming environment for the families, and of course, it will also trickle down to the young children and contribute to their successful development.

Ok, at this point, I am saying something you already know. But, Summer speaks about specific ways you can create this positive early childhood environment. 

Summer talks about how critical the preschool’s director, or the center’s manager is in reducing the drama, and focusing on the data. She focuses on what ECE leaders can do to cultivate a culture where staff aren’t always in survival and emotional, and instead, are able to be in touch with their logic and reasoning. 

Here are some of the ways she shared.

1. Look for physical responses

Summer says the first data to rely on is our body’s physical reactions. When you are anxious or scared or upset, what physical signs does your body give you? Do you talk faster, or do you get silent and tend to disassociate? Do you sweat? 

By being able to recognize our own physical responses, we can use these tangible identifiers to recognize when we are more likely to react in a survival or emotional response. So instead, we can take some deep breaths, respond in that moment with a calm, reasonable response - and save the dramatic response for when you are not with the staff.

little girl with big emotions

2. Don’t suppress your emotions, but control when you show them

Of course, Summer admits that when staff would tell her about certain mistakes, she was filled with emotions, and was tempted to respond “dramatically”. But, she taught herself to take a couple deep breaths, say “Thanks for letting me know,” and then go into her office where she was alone. Then, she lets out all the emotion she needs to. 

She doesn’t suppress her emotions - and she doesn’t recommend that anyone should. But, she doesn’t let her staff see the more emotional - or dramatic - response. This is crucial as a leader. If you react in an overly emotional (or dramatic way), your childcare staff will not be comfortable approaching you again when there is an issue or a mistake is made.

By releasing some of the emotional response alone and keeping the “drama” behind closed doors, Summer was able to come back ready to look at the facts, the information, the data, and work together with the staff towards a solution. By finding solutions together, a leader expresses continued support in their staff and their personal professional development, and towards a more positive culture and environment.

“As owners we were almost paralyzed in fear. And we were also like, and we would never know if our staff didn't feel comfortable enough to come and tell us.”
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3. Make space for mistakes

I’ve mentioned this already a couple times, but it was a common theme throughout the conversation with Summer. She frequently emphasized the inevitability of working in early childhood education: mistakes happen. 

We are humans, and we are humans working with other humans. And on top of mistakes just being a natural part of being human, so are emotions. So knowing that, how can a leader cultivate “a culture or a space that is more available for mistakes?” How can we minimize the drama around mistakes?

Summer uses a specific example about breastfeeding and infants. She explains that for her and her business partner, that was one of their biggest fears. But, they also knew that they had to accept it wasn’t a matter of if an infant would be fed the wrong bottle, but when - again, “because we’re people working with people”. 

But then, her and her partner realized that they shouldn’t only be worried about when it happens, but making sure they know it happens. And they would never know about mistakes if their staff did not feel comfortable approaching them, and talking to them when they inevitably happen. So as a leader, what can you do in your childcare center to ensure your staff feel a part of an open, honest, transparent and supportive work environment? This brings me to my next important feature of an ECE leader - self-reflection.

“We would always say we are in an industry of people working with people. Mistakes are going to happen. Do not hide them from us. If you hide them from us, we cannot help you because we don’t know about it.”

4. Self-reflection and put yourself in your staff’s shoes

A self-reflective ECE leader is key to creating an environment that allows childcare staff to be comfortable to admit to their mistakes. 

Summer uses an example to show how if a staff member lies about sending out an email (survival response of fib, as mentioned above!), then rather than blaming or punishing, a leader should ask themselves, how can I do better so that my staff is not reacting out of survival? 

“Hey, that person isn’t maliciously trying to take my business down. That person is operating out of a stress response. I need to go back and reflect and say, how can I do better at the reminders, how can I do better at accountability, how can I do better, you know, make a culture or a space that’s more available for mistakes.”

Of course, it takes the whole team to create a positive working culture, but it is up to the director and manager to lead by example. They should talk openly and honestly about their own mistakes, and repeatedly remind their staff that mistakes will happen, and it is a safe space to do so. 

Family partnerships: merging data, not drama with customer service

As a former director, Summer has had her fair share of interactions with parents and family members complaining. She even jokingly warns ECE staff to not open an email if the subject is, “A couple of things,” and says “you might as well just go to the bar while you read that email.”

Still, as any ECE staff knows, family members are filled with emotions, and with that can come drama. To help Summer tap into logic and reasoning when getting a more emotional or dramatic comment from a family member, she would remind herself: “I think we have to remember parents are trusting us with their literal heart. Their hearts that are walking around outside. And that’s a huge responsibility and a huge honor.”

So then, Summer mentions this idea of “merging data, not drama with customer service.” She mentions how a parent at her preschool complained about the lines in the parking lot not being bright enough. Summer’s immediate reaction was, “I can teach your child how to be a functioning human, but you’re concerned about the parking lot lines!?” 

After releasing some emotions alone in her office, Summer was able to look at the facts and come to a compromise, and agreed to have the lines painted once a year. 

preschool kids dancing and moving

Summer's bit of final advice

Control what you can control

We have all heard this in many parts of our lives. Whether it’s worrying about the weather on a wedding day, or stressing when a plane is delayed. Or whether a staff gave an infant the wrong bottle. 

We can’t control other people, and we are not responsible for other people’s mistakes. But, we can move forward and control our response and future actions. So rather than getting caught up in the drama of what could have or should have happened, it’s best to look forward, look at the facts and focus on finding a reasonable solution.

“Be in control of your own emotions and how you react and respond. I can't control other people, but I can control myself. How do we fix it moving forward because it just is…A lot of us don’t like to live in that space of it just is, but it’s a really happy space to live.”

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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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