Learning Journeys Aren’t Just for Little Ones

Grown-ups call it performance management. Here’s how it works in the Early Years.
October 7, 2020
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From the moment children arrive at our settings, we’re focused on their growth. We consider where they are and what comes next. We’re constantly supporting children to develop their learning and understanding.

Doesn’t it make sense to do the same for the grown-ups at our settings?

That’s what performance management is all about. The term might sound complex, but it’s really not so scary — just think of it like a ‘Learning Journey’ for Early Years professionals.

Put simply, it can help you get the best people on your team, and build their skills and keep everyone happy, so that you can provide the best care possible for the children at your setting. If you use performance management well, you’ll snuff out problems before they get unmanageable, and make sure your team sticks around to keep learning, take on new roles, and build their skills for years to come.

But all that starts with breaking down what performance management is, and how you can bring it into your Early Years settings. Let’s explore this a little.

How does performance management work in the Early Years?

When I was researching and writing my book, Performance Management in Early Years Settings, I realised that performance management is actually useful in any stage of a career — in the same way that we use learning journeys to support and challenge children across a whole range of ages.

As I see it, we can break down performance management into a few key practices you can do regularly at your setting:

  1. Recruitment and selection
  2. Induction
  3. Continuing professional development (CPD)
  4. Peer observation
  5. Supervision and one-to-one sessions
  6. Appraisal
  7. Sickness monitoring
  8. Support and challenge
  9. Promotion, demotion, resignation, and dismissal.

(Garvey 2017, p.83)

Reading through these, you’ll see that performance management isn’t all about punishing people, or pushing them to meet quotas. It focuses on supporting your team, and helping everybody grow.

As I write in my book, I know all these maybe wouldn’t be followed in this order, but I do think they all have a place:

… If each of these areas is fully embedded within a setting, then the more negative side of performance management is easier to facilitate, or perhaps would be needed less often in the first place (Garvey 2017, p.85)

Getting the right team

Performance management starts with recruiting. So to get the right team members, let’s start by making sure we have the right paperwork. This means job descriptions that make sense, interview questions that help people shine, and people on the interview panel who know the job. It’s easiest to support and build your team if you start off with the best team members, after all.

Once you’ve decided who to hire, it’s time for a useful induction that helps new staff understand what they do and why. Yes, policies and procedures are important — but how will you help bring your team to life? How will you help everyone share their individual personalities at your setting, and how will new staff understand why you have the policies you do?

This cuts to the core of points 1 and 2. Through your recruitment and selection process, as well as your induction to the job, you’ve got to think about how you make your policies and practices clear, while also giving your team the space to get to know one another and the job.

The heart of performance management

The following points are what I consider to be the very core of performance management:

  • Continuing professional development (CPD)
  • Peer observation
  • Supervision and one-to-one sessions
  • Appraisal

These ideas form the core of supporting growth, learning and development. CPD might sound corporate, but it’s really quite broad — it’s anything that helps people to think, reflect and consider what they do and why.

Peer observation is proven to support all colleagues, but — and it’s a big but — only if you approach it sensitively and in a supportive team. It’s not about looking for slip-ups, or picking apart flaws — it’s about praising good practice, and finding room for growth.

Supervision and one-on-one sessions should be at the very centre of performance management. It’s about taking the time to talk to your team, your managers, your director — anyone and everyone. As you schedule your weeks and months, be sure to make time to listen, reflect, challenge and support.

These activities should be regular. You should regularly review to be sure they’re helpful and making sense to your team. And then, they should all feed into an appraisal. Once or twice a year, you should hold longer, more detailed meetings that where you look at everything, and consider your plans for going forward.

It’s just like the points in the year where we consider the child’s learning journey, and plan for the next stage.

The difficult bits

The following points, all too often, are seen as the only reasons to undertake performance management:

  • Sickness monitoring
  • Supporting and challenging
  • Promotion, demotion, resignation, and dismissal.

To me this means we miss a whole wealth of opportunities before this. And if we do it right, we might avoid the need for things like demotions and dismissal altogether.

Clearly we all get ill at some point, but we’ve all had days where going into work is difficult. Sickness monitoring is therefore also a vital component of performance management. If there are reasons why someone doesn’t want to go to work, you need to identify and deal with this.

To discuss promotions, demotions and dismissals, I think it’s interesting that in my book on performance management, the discussion on these issues is the smallest. In a few words:

I believe that … disciplinary, grievance or dismissal should only ever be used if there are no other alternatives. (Garvey 2017, p.85)

I’ve found that in the majority of cases where a team member needs support, the earlier points — thoughtful inductions, CPD, peer observations, one-on-one sessions — have not been used. I think this suggests an incomplete approach to performance management, which brings me to point 8.

For me, support and challenge are the very foundations of our work with children. You cannot have one without the other, and we use them all the time with children. Of course, challenge can be positive.

Think about how we challenge children to take risks and make mistakes — it works for grown-ups too! For example, how do you support a new member of the team when they talk to parents? Or how do you challenge an experienced member of the team to try for a promotion, or take on more responsibility?

A few closing thoughts

I’ve used the term ‘staff’ in this article, but this doesn’t just apply to the most senior staff at your setting. As we learn performance management, we learn new ways to lead — and there are a whole host of other staff who could take on some of these responsibilities. Room leaders, seniors, team leaders, or whatever term you use, there is a whole level of practitioners who are moving into leadership roles.

So, here are a few final questions for reflection:

  • Who and what exactly are your team members leading?
  • How do you develop leadership skills in your team?
  • What support/challenge could you offer, and to whom?
  • What about peer support, is that utilised and developed?

Think back over your career, there will be times when you felt supported, and times when you felt challenged. Some will be helpful, some not so much. But you remember those times that were helpful. You take those times with you, when you developed a new skill, or someone helped you to understand something new. They have become part of who you are, what you do, and why you do it.

My belief is that we can, and should, help others to do the same. We should be embracing performance management in the Early Years, to support each and every member of staff to be the best they can be. In other words, it’s a ‘Learning Journey’ for grown-ups.

Performance management should be something we’re all interested in. If we want quality experiences for children, then we need quality experiences for staff. Debbie Garvey is a consultant, author & trainer, with over 35 years of experience across the Early Years sector. Debbie has particular interests in developing understanding of neuroscience and PSED for children and adults. You can connect with Debbie on Twitter @Stoneg8Training or through the website www.stonegatetraining.co.uk

The big ideas

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