What’s a key person's role?

While going to a childminder or to nursery can be an exciting and enriching experience for a child, it can also be a stressful experience. This is partly because it is something new and unfamiliar, but also because it involves the child separating from the main person who looks after them. To help young children manage this, they need to be able to depend on a known and reliable caregiver at the setting, namely a ‘key person’. (Previously the term ‘key worker’ was commonly used to describe this role, but many nurseries now use the term, 'key person' to emphasise the central importance of the relationship between the child and the 'person' responsible for their care.)

Key people are usually allocated a small group of children to look after. They will be the main carer for each of these particular children while they are in the care of the nursery or childminder. If a child is able to form a close relationship with a ‘key’ person who is consistently available to them this will help them to feel more secure. This key person will become 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, key people have a range of responsibilities, such as feeding, changing, activity planning and monitoring each child’s developmental progress. Through these activities, the key person’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, key people can’t always 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.

Also see: Separation anxiety

Tips on how to build a secure relationship between key person and child

There are a few practical steps that nursery staff, key people and parents can take to help babies, toddlers or young children settle into their new relationship with their key person. These will also help ensure that a secure relationship develops.

Helping with the settling in process

A child’s key person is the ideal person to support the child through the settling-in process. This is as much an opportunity for the key person 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 key person 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.

Effectively communicating with parents and carers about how a child is doing

Communicating effectively with parents is a vital aspect of the key person’s role. Nurseries have different way of doing this - some write notes and observations in a book, others catch up with parents 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 key person and parents or carers helps parents feel ‘in the loop’ about their child’s experiences at nursery. It also gives parents 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 trust the person who looks after them at nursery, so developing this relationship is really important. 

Being there during tricky transition periods

Even after a child has settled into nursery, the key person 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. If a child has a reliable and empathetic adult, who they can expect to be sensitive to their feelings and needs, at these tricky times, it will do much to help them manage and master these feelings. 

Implementing a ‘key person buddy system’ for times of absence

Part of the strength of the key person-child relationship is its consistency – the key person is a familiar adult who is present and available whenever the child is at nursery. However, like parents, key people can’t be available to children 100% of the time, and sometimes there will be unexpected changes. A ‘key person buddy system’, in which children are allocated a second key person who will step in if their usual key person is not available, is a helpful way to support children with unexpected key person absences. Whenever possible, it is helpful to give children as much warning as possible if their key person is going to be absent or if there is going to be a change of key person. At times of intense stress, such a health crises, children and parents may have to manage abrupt, unplanned changes to nursery staffing. Nursery closures may mean a sudden separation from the key person.

Also see: Separation anxiety

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