Wednesday, 18 November 2015

A personal reflection on the important role of a key person

Elspeth Pitman  
Early Years Consultant 

Should we give children the opportunity to choose their own key person? 

Recently I had the pleasure of going to Tanzania for a week to help run a children’s programme at a Conference for Missionaries. We, 5 volunteers, had the privilege of entertaining 27 children ranging between the ages of 12 months to 14 years. Due to my Early Years background and Norland training I took on the responsibility for making sure our five youngest children, all under the age of 3 years, were well cared for.

This experience gave me the opportunity to reflect on some of the best practice we at Norland College promote throughout our training. The two areas of best practice which I found most useful during my time in Tanzania were, careful observation of each individual child’s needs and regular reflection on the care and environment provided. Both of these areas of best practice proved to be invaluable throughout my week in Tanzania to help provide the best possible care we could under the circumstances. 

Transitions, especially short terms ones, are particularly hard for young children as they are often not fully aware of what is going on and why they are being left in a different situation with adults they have not met before. The situation reminded me of a quote by Elinor Goldschmied (2001, p. 37) “We can never remind ourselves too often that a child, particularly a very young child and almost totally dependent one, is the only person in the nursery who cannot understand why he is there.” 

With this reflection in mind, and bearing in mind the children had never met us before, whilst I at first said I would act as key person for the youngest of children, we decided that we would initially keep all the children in one room together to see how they settled. Our initial instinct proved to be invaluable; the youngest of our children would often only settle if sitting right next to, or even on the same chair as, their sibling. Being in the same room all together also meant that the youngest children could settle or be comforted by the adult they felt most comfortable with – in effect choosing their own key person. The beneficial effect of this was clearly seen in a little boy of 18 months who, from day 1, would only settle with our only male volunteer. We facilitated this choice of key person for this little boy as much as possible and by the 4th and final day of the programme we all celebrated the confidence this little boy had developed. Helping this little boy build a secure attachment to one adult helped him to feel more secure in his whole surrounding and to explore and play independently with all of the adults in the room.

It is important as an Early Years Practitioner and Nanny we make sure that through the best practice of careful observation we are supporting young children through times of transition as sensitively as possible. Recent research (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2014) has shown that high levels of the hormone Cortisol, produced through stressful situations, can initially reduce young children’s ability to play, learn and develop. Whilst we cannot remove all stresses on young children, as this is part of life, we should endeavour to reduce it as much as possible to allow play, learning and development to flourish in each individual child in our care.  This was something which I certainly observed to be true with the little boy in our care during just 1 week.

The key person practice is not uncommon in nursery settings, but it did make me reflect upon whether there is always the facilitation for a young child to choose their own key person if it would benefit the child? This does not mean that any one practitioner is better than another, but as individuals we do gravitate more towards some people than others. Parents who are choosing their nanny and in effect key person for their children might also consider the Norland recommendation of having the nanny spend a day (or more) with the children and family as part of the interviewing process. This will provide the opportunity for the parents and nanny not only to see whether they will be happy working together, but also the opportunity for the parents to see whether the children warm to the particular nanny’s personality and style to fully allow the ‘key person’ relationship, and therefore the children, to thrive.