How do you care for children’s emotional health and wellbeing as they enter nursery or playgroup for the first time? Helen M R Hann, an experienced foundation stage teacher, looks at the practical implications

‘It is these early transitions and how we cope with them that will have the greatest effect on the rest of our emotional development, and on our ability to cope with life’s challenges’

John Cousins, Early Years Update, October 2005

Use real emotional intelligence

Before reading this article or before undertaking the development of your induction/transition policy, take a moment either individually or with colleagues to reflect on your own experiences of transitions. Not necessarily from home to playgroup, as for most of us this is a long time ago, but transitions /changes in your own lives that have impacted on your emotional wellbeing. Jot down or share the first five feelings that enter your thinking.

You may find the emotions that you have reflected upon are a mixture of both positive and negative; different colleagues will have very different responses to this activity; but all of us know that these feelings wane over time and that we are capable of dealing with them.

Now consider the three-year-old children who are about to start nursery/playgroup. They too will have a variety of emotions, specific to them and their circumstances. They will probably have deeply felt and intense emotions and it is very unlikely that they will have the vocabulary to articulate them. They also do not have the certain knowledge, that we do, that these feelings will pass or diminish. So for them, for even the most confident, self-assured child, the transition from home to playgroup/nursery produces a maelstrom of emotional uncertainty, which they do not know will stop.

In determining our role in supporting children and their key family members through this transition, we must try to keep the children at the heart of our policies and procedures. By using real emotional intelligence throughout the process, we will stand a better chance of engaging the child in a smooth and secure change.

The picture
It is important to establish as a team your vision or picture of the ideal experience for a child moving into your setting. Record it either in words or images and keep on returning to it when planning, reviewing and amending your procedures. Holding onto this image helps us to stay close to the fundamental needs of the children in our care. (Ideally all of the practitioners involved in supporting transition should be drawn into this process and not solely managers/leaders.)

Once you have established your ideal for transition, consider what would help you, thinking as a child, to achieve this. It can help to think of the questions that you had when starting a new job.

For example:

  • Where are the toilets?
  • Where should I put my coat and bag?
  • What should I do and where should I go on my first day?
  • Who should I ask to help me?
  • What should I do if I am stuck or have a problem?
  • What are the other people’s names?
  • Who should I trust? How do I know this?
  • What time can I have a drink/something to eat? Where do I get that from?

Now add on some questions specific to the three year old’s concerns:

  • How will I know when it’s time to go home?
  • What happens if I hurt myself/feel unwell?
  • Will my mummy remember to come and get me?
  • What does my new coat look like? Will I be able to find it again?

This list of questions married with the picture of the ideal transition can help you determine your route forward for your setting.

Tried and tested
This is by no means a comprehensive one-size-fits-all approach but some ideas that you may wish to draw upon when planning and organising your setting’s provision for entry. You will need to tailor these to the needs of the children and the provision you make or can offer. If you come to a point of not knowing which direction to take in developing your induction systems, try going back to your picture/image and your list of questions – it can help you, as a team, to clarify your thoughts.

  • Consider holding a meeting with parents/carers without children there. This could be as an information evening/afternoon with a group of parents or an informal chat in the office. This will give you the chance to share some of the practical information that they will need. It will also give you the chance to share the ideals that you and your team have. It can also help parents to share their anxieties and questions with you. Before the meeting make a list of the concerns that parents may have and think through your responses. If parents feel confident about the setting and about the staff and their attitudes they will pass this on to the children. Anxious parents can create anxious children. Provide a checklist of the routines you follow so that the parent can share it with the child on returning home.
  • It is worth taking the time to show parents/carers around the setting when the children are and are not present. This way they can gain a sense of the day-to-day atmosphere and also give them time and space to take in and formulate a picture for themselves of where their child is going to be when he is away from them. It is vitally important that parents feel welcome in your setting so take time to make sure that they know exactly where everything is, that they can recognise and identify key members of staff, that they have time with the key worker for their child, and that they are shown respect by all members of staff during their time with you.
  • Arrange sessions for the children to visit and spend time in the setting, both with and without their carers. This will allow the families to start to familiarise themselves with key staff and areas. It will also help them begin to answer some of those questions for themselves. By seeing their parents and carers in their playgroup/nursery, it also helps the child to grasp that this is a safe place where they will be looked after by safe people. It will help you begin to understand the needs of individual children and how you can best support them. Gradually build up the time that the children spend with you, without their carers and you will possibly find that when it comes to the final separation, it is the parents/carers who need your support and not the children!
  • A home visit close to the time that the child starts at nursery/playgroup can help firm up that bond of trust between the children, parents/carers and the practitioners. Children will be able to observe you as new adults in the home environment. It also gives the opportunity for a more relaxed discussion between all concerned. For the children, it seems to be a very significant event; one which they remember for a long time and refer back to. Have a basket or bag containing some toys and books to share with the child and his family. Make it conspicuous in colour or design. When the child starts at nursery have the bag in sight so that he may see it and recognise it and make the link between you and his home. Take some photographs of your setting and mount them in a book with captions: ‘This is where we put our coats’, ‘These are our toilets’ ‘We are listening to a story’ and most importantly of all, ‘We are going home’, with a picture of children and parents/carers greeting each other at the end of a session. If you have access to digital photography you could make a copy for each new entrant. Take the book with you on the home visit and talk the child and his parents through it. Each year make a new book with the children about to move on, that they can put together for the children who will follow after them.

Reassure children, young people and those caring for them by explaining what is happening, and by exploring and examining possible actions to deal with new and challenging situations.
Common Core of Skills and Knowledge for the Children’s Workforce (Transitions: skills: provide support)

Some simple steps to make the transition easier for the child and for his parents/carers

  • Each child having a drawer and peg with their name and a picture or symbol on it. You could take a photograph of each child – face only – on entry and use that to mark their special place. This will also help them to help by finding someone else’s coat for them, at a time when they may not recognise a written name or be able to remember each child’s symbolic picture. This helps them feel part of the setting with a place of their own.
  • Allow transitional objects, such as a favourite teddy or cloth, sprayed with perfume/aftershave. It may seem a small matter to us but for the child it is a connection with home and is a reassurance that they will be collected at the end of the session.
  • Consider having a basket of cuddly toys that may need a cuddle if they (the toys!) feel sad.
  • A large and varied supply of stickers that can be used for instant, frequent praise and reassurance.
  • Boxes of tissues in ample supply, so that no fuss is created if and when they are needed.
  • For the distressed child, it can help all involved to have a key person that the child is handed over to, so that both parent/carer and child experience the sensation of separation initially for a few minutes and then over gradually extended periods of time. Distraction by engaging the child in the simplest of things, such as looking out of the window, can be enough to break the cycle. It may be that the child cries because he thinks that that is what is expected of him.

Take time to consider the environment into which the children are about to come. Will the child be overwhelmed or even frightened by the number of children, the noise levels and so on?

  • Stagger the intake time and dates so that you have fewer new children to take care of, and so that you can spare lots of adult time for one-to-one time if necessary.
  • Could you arrange a new-intake-only session to give them time and space to find their way around?
  • If you have made a home visit, make sure that this adult is waiting to greet the child and his parents/carers when they arrive on their first day.

For the parents/carers:

  • Provide them with a copy of the daily routines that their child will be following. This  can help them to picture what he will be doing over the day, and when.
  • A phone call during the first day just to let them know that all is well can re-assure. This would be a welcome act on any day when the child is upset on leaving a parent who can’t stay.
  • Make sure that the child’s key worker is available to talk to the parent/carer at the end of the day when they collect the child.
  • An occasional digital photo of their child at play lets the parent know that their child is settling down and enjoying himself.
  • Print business cards with the name and number of a person that the parent can call in emergencies.

It is useful to keep in mind that the transition to playgroup/nursery for us and for the children and families is like making a journey to a new destination. At first, you have to follow the map very closely and can find it very difficult to get there. Gradually by going there again and again, you feel more confident and secure in your knowledge of the route, such as where the turns, hazards and traffic lights are. Eventually you do not need the map any more.

There is no perfect approach to transition but if we keep the emotions of the people involved at the heart of our policies and procedures, we will stand the best chance of making it as smooth as possible.