Those in Early Years understand that their role is twofold – that of an educator, but also caregiver. However, the ‘care’ aspect of the role is increasingly being overlooked by policy makers in favour of a drive towards academic progress.
The baseline assessment on entry to reception and the EYFS Profile at the end of the year is leading us towards becoming data driven. This focus on measuring attainment means that the care and emotional warmth children need to thrive is often seen as inferior.
Unfortunately, there is also a huge gender divide in the sector. Caring and nurturing qualities have long been associated as being innate to women, leading to stereotyping in the sector. On top of that, there’s a distinct lack of men in the Early Years ranks.
Although absolutely essential to children’s development, caregiving is too often seen as a ‘soft' skill, and not as professional as the education side of things. Sadly enough, caring practices are also commonly considered to conflict with the drive to professionalise the workforce - it’s seen as not necessarily needing intellect to deliver. As we know, Early Years already has a low status and wages which reflect this.
All of this leads to a very important question to reflect on – if we intertwine love with learning in Early Years, is this going to diminish the sector even more? If we love the children in our care, then this makes going to work less of a chore as we are rewarded with the time and attention of young children who we enjoy spending time with.
I’ll dive into why professional love in the Early Years is so important, and the first steps to putting it at the heart of your practice.
Caring practices in Early Years can be related to the concept of ‘professional love’. This is a term coined by Dr Jools Page, and refers to the loving relationships developed in a setting between children and adults. It’s seen as being very different from parental love.
The key difference between the two is that we have very different roles - one is the role of a parent, one as a professional. In a setting, the ‘love’ we demonstrate will complement the home environment - it’s not a replacement for parental love, but a substitute. Even though we don’t share the emotional attachment of the parent, we can still value the loving relationship we can form with a child. That’s what professional love is all about.
And what does this look like? Adults in the setting take on the caregiver role, providing the love, emotional warmth and touch that children need when away from home. Whether a child is in a setting or at home, their emotional needs remain the same. If they fall over, they might need a cuddle and their tears wiped away, if they’re tired and struggling to give in to sleep, they might need to be held and rocked or if a child is missing their family, some kind, gentle words and a sit on a lap can offer comfort and reassurance.
What professional love looks like will of course vary from child to child, as they are all unique. While some don’t seek out human contact, and are confident and self-sufficient, other children will look to professionals as a secure base where they can receive cuddles and reassurance.
When it comes down to it, the caring aspect of professional love is incredibly important in the Early Years. We should be viewing the child as a whole, understanding that the caring element is just as important as the educational one.
When we think about what children need to thrive, it leads us to the parts of our practice associated with care. They need to have their basic human needs met - to feel loved, valued, cared for and safe. When these factors are in place, children’s emotional development is prioritised, enabling them to have the confidence and self-worth to play, learn, build relationships and become independent.
Education and care are inextricably intertwined - if a child doesn’t feel happy, safe and secure, they are likely to find learning a lot more challenging.
But it goes even further than that. Caring for a child lets us understand how everything can have an impact on them, in setting and at home. If we’re looking at that Key Person that every child needs, close bonds must be formed between adult and child, which involves tuning in to the child’s needs and emotions, respect, trust, sensitivity and kindness.
Attachments help children to feel safe, reassured, confident and able to thrive. Responsive, sensitive adults grow to know and understand the children, picking up on the tiniest of cues related to their wellbeing. We’re able to identify if a child needs a little comfort, whether that’s a few kind words, a cuddle, hand holding or sitting on a lap.
Developing professional love in an Early Years setting starts with the ethos and culture of your setting. These underpin everything in your daily practices, from care routines and the curriculum to parent relationships and play.
Before you begin determining how to go about professional love, think about the core elements of your ethos and culture in the points below:
In a time when we are seeing an ever-increasing focus on the mental wellbeing of staff in Early Years, it’s good to situate discussions on professional love alongside encouraging staff to be self-aware of their own feelings.
We all know that working in Early Years can be emotionally draining and therefore it’s necessary for staff to have an outlet – a safe space to talk about their feelings and emotions. With this, comes the need to reflect on our emotional responses to children, understanding that it is the child’s needs which should be met through professional love, and not our own. It is not appropriate for staff to project their own needs onto the children, seeking out affection and warmth.
Recruitment practices in Early Years can help settings develop a workforce which fits with the culture and ethos and therefore approach to professional love. Interviews, trial periods and thorough, robust induction procedures can help new staff to understand what is meant by professional love and offer opportunities to discuss how this looks in practice, including appropriate ways of demonstrating love.
It’s good to reflect on how developing a professionally loving ethos is a process, as we look at how love comes in many different forms, as does the way we express it. Love can be seen and felt through the words we use with children, our tone of voice, cuddles, hand holding, sitting on laps, enjoying the company of children and holding them in mind.
Unfortunately, child protection issues raised in the media can impact on how staff feel and view their caring role, and this can influence their willingness to show professional love within a setting.
Staff quite rightly want to avoid being linked to accusations of inappropriate touch. This is, of course, a sensitive issue as leaders want staff to feel comfortable in their role.
What you can do about it:
Working in a setting which embraces professional love and celebrates the caring aspect of Early Years can be incredibly rewarding. It can empower practitioners to acknowledge the important role they play in the life of a child, with their needs being met through loving, nurturing relationships.
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.