What’s a key workers role?
While going to a childminder or to nursery can be exciting and enriching for children, it is also a stressful experience. This is partly because it is something new and unfamiliar, but also because it involves separating from the primary caregiver(s). To help young children manage this, they need to be able to depend on a known and reliable caregiver, or what is known as a ‘keyworker’.
Keyworkers are usually allocated a small group of children, for whom they are the primary substitute carer while the child is in the care of the nursery or childminder. Forming a close relationship with a ‘key’ person who is consistently available to the child, provides the child with an additional attachment figure, in the absence of their parents or carers. Just like with the attachment relationships that the child has formed with their parents or carers, this new relationship is a secure foundation on which the child can build their capacity to explore, play and learn.
Depending on the age of the children they care for, keyworkers have a range of responsibilities, such as feeding, changing, activity planning and monitoring each child’s developmental progress. Through these activities, the keyworker’s most important task is to get to know the child as an individual and to develop a warm and empathic relationship with them. A key part of this is responding sensitively to their verbal and non-verbal cues.
Like parents, keyworkers can’t be perfectly attuned to their key children, and like parents they can’t and won’t get it right all the time. But what is most important for the baby, toddler or young child is that they have a consistent and reliable adult who keeps trying to understand them and what they need. In fact, many nurseries now use the term “key person” instead of keyworker, to emphasise the central importance of the relationship between the child and the “person” responsible for their care.
- Strategies for supporting keyworker-child relationships
Nursery staff, keyworkers and parents can take practical steps to help the baby, toddler or young child settle into and maintain a secure relationship with their keyworker:
- A child’s keyworker is the ideal person to support the child through the settling-in process. This is as much an opportunity for the keyworker to get to know the child as it is for the child to start getting used to the nursery setting and routine. It is very helpful if the keyworker can plan the settling-in process together with the child’s parents, so that it can be adapted as far as possible to meet the child’s individual needs. The carer should be able to spend as much time as necessary in the nursery with the child to settle them.
- Communicating effectively with parents is a vital aspect of the keyworker’s role. Nurseries have different way of doing this - some write notes and observations in a book, others catch up with parents or carers verbally at the beginning or end of the day. This is particularly important for babies and younger toddlers, who are not able to talk about what they have been doing during the day. Open communication between keyworker and parents or carers helps them feel ‘in the loop’ about their child’s experiences at nursery. It also gives parents or carers a clear communication channel if they have concerns or important information to share about their child. Young children and even babies pick up on whether their parents or carers trust the person who looks after them at nursery, so developing this relationship is really important.
- Even after a child has settled into nursery, the keyworker is particularly helpful at times of transition, such as beginning or ending nursery, returning after a weekend or a holiday break, or even simply changing from one activity to another. It is common for young children to feel scared, anxious, or even cross when saying goodbye to a person or an activity, or changing from one caregiver to another. At times like these, having a reliable and empathic adult, who the child can expect to be sensitive to their feelings and needs, is extremely helpful in supporting the child to manage and master these feelings.
- Part of the strength of the keyworker-child relationship is its consistency – the keyworker is a familiar adult who is present and available whenever the child is at nursery. However, like parents, keyworkers can’t be available to children 100% of the time, and sometimes there will be unexpected changed. A keyworker buddy system, in which children are allocated a second keyworker who will step in if their usual keyworker is not available, is a helpful way to support children with unexpected keyworker absences. Whenever possible, it is helpful to give children as much warning as possible if their keyworker is going to be absent or if there is going to be a change of keyworker.
- At times of intense stress, such a health crisis, children and parents may have to manage abrupt, unplanned changes to nursery staffing. Nursery closures may mean a sudden separation from the keyworker. You can find more information and advice about how to support parents and children with this via digital platforms, and with the return to nursery, here.
- Tips for parents and carers on helping children to settling in at nursery
- Tell the child what is going to be happening at least a few days before it takes place
- Use simple and straightforward language, with a confident and factual tone of voice
- Give the child room to ask questions, and to protest!
- Tell the child what they’ll be doing while they are apart from you
- Reassure the child that you’ll be thinking about them, and that the child can think about you while you’re apart
- Even for younger children who can’t speak, they may understand a simple explanation, and will understand a reassuring, loving tone of voice.