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From trauma to bereavement to domestic abuse – the majority of nursery workers are encountering children facing extremely challenging and complex backgrounds; and many feel under-prepared for the task

A new survey by the Anna Freud Centre has revealed that a high proportion of nursery workers have experienced working with children facing extremely complex backgrounds and challenging emotional and behavioural needs. Many admitted that they had found these needs difficult to manage.

Domestic violence, parental substance use, abuse and bereavement were listed as some of the issues affecting the children in their care. Other challenges involved different emotional or mental health needs. The effects of the pandemic were also a cause for concern for some of the respondents.

According to the survey, many nursery staff feel under-prepared for this side of the job and wanted more access to training.

The survey received responses from over 900 UK nursery staff during the last three months of 2020. Its findings feature in the attached report, Their challenges are our challenges, and include the following:

  • 69% of nursery staff who responded said they had experienced working with babies or children affected by trauma or abuse.
  • 71% of nursery staff said they had worked with babies and children affected by domestic violence.
  • 60% reported that they had worked with babies or children from families affected by substance usage.
  • Almost half (48%) said they had worked with children who had experienced the bereavement of either a parent or sibling.
  • 42% of staff told us they had noticed signs that children in their care had had their emotional wellbeing affected by the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown.
  • Three quarters (75%) of staff said they had looked after young children who displayed “unusually aggressive or violent behaviour”.
  • 91% said they had dealt with challenging situations that involved children who potentially had mental health issues, or social or emotional difficulties.

Professor Peter Fonagy, Chief Executive of the Anna Freud Centre, says: “The early years are the most important in terms of a child’s development, and the results of this survey are truly eye opening. When most of us think about who will be directly supporting our most vulnerable children and families, we normally think of social workers and mental health professionals. But we forget that our nursery workers are engaging with vulnerable children on a daily basis. Aside from their own families, these children probably spend more time with nursery workers than anyone else during their early formative years. This research should fundamentally shift the way we view the role of nursery workers within our society.”

The survey also looked at the impact that dealing with these challenging needs was having on nursery staff themselves, and how equipped they felt to dealing with them. Many admitted to feeling stressed, upset, and out of their depth at times. In summary:

  • 71% of staff said they had become stressed or upset when dealing with these situations, whilst 74% said they felt confused and unsure of best way to deal with them.
  • Over half (53%) said they had not received any additional training, alongside their standard training, that related to early years mental health.

Dr Rosan explains, “At times, nursery staff are clearly feeling under-prepared and under-resourced to manage and support children who are experiencing challenging emotions or have mental health needs. They are telling us that they want to know more about what lies behind emotions such as anger and aggression, as they are encountering them more than we think. They also tell us they want more training in the best ways to support a child who is experiencing these difficult emotions. It’s clear we need to prioritise the development of these skills and give nursery staff the support and training opportunities they so want and deserve about early years’ mental health.”

The Anna Freud Centre is announcing a series of free webinars aimed at nursery and other childcare workers. The first webinar will be looking at: Managing challenging behaviour in early years settings This webinar will be taking a look at how to understand and manage emotions such as anger, aggression and frustration in young children. It will take place on February 24. Other webinars in the series will include: Supporting bereaved children in early years settings and Caring for children in early years settings who have experienced trauma.

Alongside the webinars, the Early Years in Mind network will continue to offer free and tailored attachment informed advice to all early years professionals.