It is often overlooked that nursery practitioners are working with vulnerable children on a daily basis, the report ‘Their challenges are our challenges’ by the Anna Freud Centre states.The centre, which specialises in child mental health research, training and treatment, surveyed more than 900 nursery practitioners during the last three months of 2020. They revealed that they have experienced working with children facing complex backgrounds and challenging emotional and behavioural needs. More than 4 in 10 early years workers surveyed said they had noticed signs that children in their care had their emotional wellbeing affected by the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown.

Many of the nursery staff surveyed admitted that they had found the children’s needs difficult to manage and wanted more access to training. More than half (53 per cent) said they had not received any additional training, alongside their standard training, that related to early years mental health.

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 (see below). One nursery worker said, ‘Children’s behaviour has changed. Some are very noisy, others are very quiet. The atmosphere at work doesn’t feel “normal” – ie I feel there is an underlying stress for everyone…’

The report found that:

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

Dr Camilla Rosan, head of the early years programme at the Anna Freud Centre said, ‘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.’

Many of the nursery workers surveyed said that they felt stressed and upset (71 per cent) when it came to dealing with children’s challenging needs. While almost three quarters (74 per cent) reported feeling confused and unsure of the best way to deal with those children. Signs that the mental health and wellbeing of early years children had been affected by the pandemic or lockdowns was noted by 42 per cent of the early years workers questioned.

One nursery worker responding to the survey summarised, ‘Those children who were confident and happy to leave parents are now not. They have struggled to settle. As the dynamics of family lives continue to change, the stresses can be seen – late payment of invoices, cancellations of lunches/quality of lunch for children. Difficult behaviour from children who have had no garden space, limited family time and lack of money has meant months in their house where parents have given them unlimited screen time and lack of rules and boundaries.’

Common themes mentioned included:

  • Greater separation anxiety and newfound issues in forming relationships with staff
  • Children having become more emotional, experiencing more unpleasant emotions, and a newfound difficulty with managing their emotions.
  • Children now exhibiting more challenging behaviour
  • Children experiencing greater issues with socialising
  • Children developing an obsession with cleaning hands, and a fear of germs, and a fear of the virus’s danger and damaging effects
  • Children being upset over restrictions around seeing family and friends.

Source Nursery World

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