Nursery Manager Tips: How to support struggling staff

March 2, 2023

15 ideas for how to engage your employees.

15 ideas for how to engage your employees.
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • Sometimes staff members aren't meeting expectations. There can be a myriad of reasons, from problems at home to financial stress, to being unable to manage their workload.
  • While you can't control everything that might make your staff struggle, the one can be 100% sure of is that you can help.
  • Read on for tips and ideas to support and inspire struggling staff.

Every now and then in the Early Years, you’ll find a member of staff whose having a hard time settling in your setting. Or, maybe you have a long-term member of staff who has lost a bit of their passion.

Borrowed from HR guides, successful nurseries around the UK, and even from our own office, here’s our 15-step guide to improving your relationships with your staff.

1. Keep it positive

If you have to address an area for improvement with your nursery staff or something that's gone wrong, the 'compliment sandwich' can help. Try to find positives to accompany any difficult conversations and make sure that you don’t discourage good work by being negative when you don’t need to be.

Keep a professional manner, rather than being punitive - the chances are, your team member already knows what went wrong. A 'telling off' isn't necessary, and can just make it worse. Focus on providing support and solutions, as well as strategies to stop the same mistake from happening again.

One of your staff comes to you with an idea? Make sure you always find the positive in it, even if the idea itself won't work. The kind of staff who care enough to come up with ideas to improve your business should be encouraged.

2. Listen

Almost everything on this list stems from here.

Good leadership means you hear what people’s ambitions, concerns, or passions are and make them feel valued. And, managers with a good degree of self-awareness know they don't have all the answers anyway.

Team meetings should be a discussion (not a lecture from management) and help to create a sense of unity in the workplace, where staff feel they have the opportunity to be heard.

An Early Years manager and a colleague have a supervision meeting. They are sitting opposite one-another at a table with a paper and pens between them.h

3. Share more with them

Sharing more with staff isn’t just good for positive relationships, it’s good for your business too.

It might feel a bit scary to share financial and business information with your childcare practitioners. But knowing your goals, your challenges, and the solutions you’re trying to offer means that your team can not only offer different perspectives on how to achieve them, but also better recognise their own contribution too.

If you are brave enough to be vulnerable and transparent about more sensitive topics, like finances and mental health, your staff members will likely feel they can do the same.

4. Get your hands dirty

When the paperwork is piling up and your to-do list is only getting longer, it’s not easy to find time to spend on the floor. But taking the time to change some nappies or help with the cleaning really matters.

Effective leadership is done from the front, not from above.

Not only do your staff know that you’re actually seeing the hard work they do, but they’ll respect leadership and management more if they know you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty.

Teachers of different races and genders are lined up, facing a chalkboard with their arms around one-anothera

5. Staff meetings.

No one likes endless meetings (especially ones they aren’t getting paid for), but they’re important to organise your team and get everyone working together.

Best practice is to try to keep meetings shorter and more efficient. Consider reducing your weekly meetings to short 15 minute updates and save longer, more in depth meetings for once a month.

An agenda means everyone knows what to expect, how they can contribute, and feel involved. For example:

  • Important updates and news about the setting, perhaps from management
  • Children's development - concerns and resources needed (this mightn't be necessary if you cover this in supervision meetings, but it can help colleagues share good practice)
  • Staff development - training and skills (professional development), achievements, conflict resolution, sharing good practice.
  • Time for staff to offer suggestions to management, ask questions, or perhaps engage in an activity - anything that has a positive impact and end the meeting on a high note.

6. Your code of conduct

Find a way to make your code of conduct simple, respectful, and not overly punitive.

You trust your team to look after young children, so you should trust them to dress themselves appropriately. That being said, it’s important to have some non-negotiable lines in the sand that are written down and agreed on. If nothing else, having rules in black and white can help avoid a conflict later on.

Include what should be expected of you as an employer too - from the chief executive to the apprentices, you're all part of the same eco-system. It’s a two-way street and it’s important that your staff don’t feel dictated to.

7. 1-on-1s

One-on-ones (or supervision meetings) are a great time to connect with individual members of your team and help them feel appreciated. This is where you do your listening and coaching, and where you set things for both of you to improve on.

A set process for your one-on-ones can help keep things on track. Think about the key things you need to cover, and the key things your team member needs to cover, and stick to it.

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

8. Have a vent box

Put in a small anonymous box where staff can leave notes, problems, and suggestions – without fear of being called up on it. Then address the issues in front of everyone at a meeting.

Call ‘vent box’ time and run through the issues, giving you a chance to explain the reasoning behind your decisions and whether you’re going to make changes.

Doing this consistently, honestly, and openly not only gives you the chance to address people’s problems before they become real issues, but it also encourages an environment of better communication all around.

9. Focus on the children

It’s no secret that most people get into childcare because they’re passionate about working with children, and this is always a good place to go back to.

If you need to encourage staff, remind them of the vital impact they have on the lives of little ones. You can help encourage this further by:

  • Giving staff more face time with parents, helping them to feel valued as a source of child development know-how.
  • Considering the amount of paperwork or administration they have to complete - how could you lighten the load and give your team more time with the children?
  • Encourage staff members to reflect on the achievements of the children in their care each day, or perhaps pick one 'wow moment' each week to share in your one-on-one.

10. Play to their strengths

Here’s another reason to listen more. Understanding what your staff are good at and what they like doing is going to give you more effective workers. But that’s just for starters. People like doing what they’re good at, and they like doing what they enjoy. And guess what? People who like doing their job tend to be happier, and better employees too.

So take the time to work out what people are good at and enjoy doing, and see if you can find a way for them to do that at work. Calling out people and finding tasks for them can take some of the weight off your shoulders, and make people feel truly valued.

11. Make sure it’s the same for everyone

You don’t need to treat everyone the same. But you do need to treat everyone fairly. The difference? Rewarding people for good work isn’t treating everyone the same, but it is treating everyone fairly (so long as you recognise all good work). The same goes for giving people more responsibility, pay rises and promotions. Keep your ears open, and make sure you’re not letting your biases affect anything.

12. Support open communication between all staff

Staff members may at some point have a disagreement (be it personal or professional) so it's best to take a proactive approach to conflict resolution. Consider including regular training (perhaps as part of your staff meetings) on communication skills, and take the lead when it comes to open calm discussion.

While people are (of course) allowed to prefer other people, and colleagues are allowed to be friends, be aware of those who are being left out. Cliques can be the cause of a whole lot of damage. They can let unfounded ideas grow, and they prevent the kind of open communication and inclusion that makes for a productive team. Encourage your staff to stay flexible and work together with the whole range of people you employ.

A child is playing with wooden toys at a table. You can see an educator's hand holding pieces of the puzzle the little girl is completing.

13. Be more organised

Organisation lets all of this above stuff work. Like keeping track of areas for improvement, and what goals you’ve set for people. Or making sure that you tell people where they need to be and why well in advance of when they need to do it. Promising people your time when they need it and keeping to that promise. That’s the kind of thing that really makes a difference to how your staff view you, and it starts with creating a system that lets you keep on top of everything.

14. Say a genuine 'thank you' everyday

It takes such little effort and it can be so powerful.

It shows that you understand and appreciate the hard work your team put in. Because even if you don’t always feel like it’s enough, chances are that they do. And all in only two words. How’s that for efficiency?  

15. Disciplinary action

This really should be the last resort. It's bad for motivation and is almost always emotional and stressful. An offline talk can often get to the root cause of problems better than a heavy-handed written warning.

Plus, the amount of time and money you will spend on finding somebody new is always far greater than you think. In this case, make sure that you’ve tried out all options before it’s time to let somebody go. And if you do, make sure you treat them with dignity and respect and try to end on good terms no matter what’s happened. It’s a small world out there and the reputation of your setting might rest on it.

The big ideas

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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

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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