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Settling children well

Healthy settling for high wellbeing

How can we best help children feel at ease so that they are secure and settled in their new provision? To hold children in mind and consider them as the person to put first means supporting their wellbeing as utmost priority.

10 pointers for healthy settling

  1. children confidently leave their main carer over time
  2. children feel secure and safe in their play
  3. home-provision links support transition and separation, including links made prior to the child starting and settling
  4. a phased in, gentle and child centred settling approach meets the individual child's needs
  5. parents and main carers feel confident to leave their children and are supported in the separation
  6. children are supported and understood in their emotions as they express them
  7. children are comforted and have their needs met if or when they cry
  8. children are listened to when they express sadness or any emotion
  9. children are listened to if they want to go home or see their main carer
  10. children have a named and present key person who supports them and meets their individual needs

The Key Person is there to support attachment

This is the key adult delegated responsibility to help to settle and support the child’s wellbeing. The key person used to be called “key worker” but was changed to communicate the relational and human elements in that primary relationship. The key person is the person first and foremost to whom the main carer – mum/dad/carer - hands over their child. The key person is the special person delegated with supporting settling and separation from the main carer. This person will show the child around, support their wellbeing, arrange a bespoke and personal settling-in programme that meets the child’s needs, understand the child and get to know them.

It is likely that some children will only have been with the main carer before the key person. In this case it is likely that the child only knows comfort and attachment to this main carer and a few limited other adults. If so, in healthy relationships it means that attachment, security and wellbeing have been supported in the early years. In other cases children will have been away from the main carer and used to separating by going to another provision or setting since birth or baby/toddler age. This could mean either that the child will come into your setting easily and happily and confidently, or that the child has another change and separation to work out and this will require support.

Considering life from the child’s eyes and experience, learning his or her story will help us to ensure settling is as helpful and supportive as it can be. If we are leading in, supporting or working in a child-centred provision then this start will mean taking the lead from the child and putting the child first in every way.

Key questions you can ask as the Key Person 

  • How can I get to know this child’s story in the best way?
  • How can I help the child to build a relationship with the key person?
  • How can I help the main carer to support the child and help us?
  • What do I need to know about the child’s story so far?
  • How can I equip the setting by providing toys and resources to meet the child’s interests?
  • How can I put provocations and resources in the setting that the child will recognise or be drawn to because they are comforting or homely?
  • How do I help children to love coming into our provision and be happy to separate through the resourced learning environment?
  • How does understanding each child’s needs help me to inform others and prepare the environment?

Prior to starting you could find out the following

  • Would a home visit help?
  • How can I find out about child’s likes and dislikes?
  • What can the main carer tell me about their child’s emotions and how they show and communicate these?
  • Is there a favourite toy or transitional object that the child goes to when stressed or distressed? If so, can you bring it and where shall we keep it for the child to go to?
  • How does the child like to be comforted?
  • Has the child been to other groups before, what is your child used to and what does a normal day look like?
  • Has the child left their main carer before?
  • Has there been any early trauma or change in their early years? This could include new sibling, toilet training recently, hospital stays, house moves, change in carer, separation or other.
  • Have there been any other separations or transitions in their first few years of life?

Supporting emotional literacy

We support children’s emotional literacy by explaining and describing what they are showing and feeling. For example, “I can see that you are feeling really sad about that." and "I know that you are sad about mummy leaving but she’s just gone for a drink and she will always come back.” Other things you could say include

  • Does that make you feel….?
  • How does that make you feel?
  • I can see that you’re crying, is that because you are sad?
  • What is making you sad?
  • Your face looks cross / sad / upset. Is that what you are feeling? Am I right?
  • How can I help you?
  • What would help you now?
  • What do you need?
  • Can you show me what you need?

Supporting wellbeing

Agree with the parent or main carer about when to call or come to collect. Some parents want to go to work and others want to pick up as soon as the child shows any upset. It is good to get an understanding about what parents and carers want for their child. It is also good to give an early years wellbeing point of view and perhaps your setting has a policy about settling and wellbeing which supports emotional health during settling and transition.I always have Ferre Laevers’ wellbeing scales in mind during transitions and settling. He says that children with high wellbeing have their mental health secured. That children with high wellbeing are able to learn. That children with low wellbeing are unable to learn. Given these proven, well researched facts, then surely settling and separations must support children’s wellbeing.

If children cry there is a reason. When babies cry adults are tuned in to respond and meet the babies’ needs. It is a natural instinct. When children cry they are communicating upset. They are most likely to be distressed, sad, unhappy or unsettled. If we are to support children’s wellbeing, and their emotional literacy then we must acknowledge and respect these feelings.

We know that brains are plastic and growing and forming in the first five years of life, so how do we give the child the best help to settle confidently and securely? There is a huge readjustment needed for the child to leave main carer and come into a new setting.

  • Do we know as much about the child as possible to help settle with confidence
  • How has the main carer helped to support the child being positive about separation?
  • What language do you use about separating, leaving main carer and what are the key phrases you all use so that the child builds trust and learns positive self-talk? Eg mummy always comes back / mummy's going to have a cup of team and then come back / I know its sad leaving mum but… / come and play with… and then mummy will come back...

If the child’s wellbeing appears low when separating or the child is crying or anxious, ask the following questions

  • Do I know enough about home?
  • Has the child been given positive reassuring messages from main carer?
  • How have we worked together to help the child separate confidently?
  • What do we agree about crying and upset?
  • How do we listen to the child in their upset and unhappiness?
  • How do we value the separation from the main carer and respect that prime key relationship?
  • How quickly do we expect children to be able to leave their secure prime attachment? Should we reassess our expectations?
  • Is the child ready to leave their main carer?
  • Do we need to support the separation process in a different or slower way?

All of these approaches will help the child to settle with confidence and supported wellbeing which prevents stress and anxiety and supports mental health and emotional literacy. These are essential foundations to be learned in the early years and help children to become involved and confident learners.

The more we know, the more we can support and help. If we are entering a true partnership with the main carer / parent then true partnership starts with relationship, and a building of trust and respect.

For some people trust can take a long time to grow and for others it can be there almost immediately if things start right – if expectations are met. Some parents may have an automatic trust in their key person/setting because of the professional trust expected. Everyone is different but we can find this out through talking and giving people time.

Time is limited I know, but a little time at the start can go a long way – a quick conversation, a smile, a tour, a visit, a conversation, a home visit, a meeting, a get-to-know-you-evening. I would advocate seeking a trusting relationship from the start and treating parents as equal partners. As a leader or manager of a provision, this might not be possible, but for the key person this is entirely possible and thus the relationship is enabled.

Settling is important business. It needs time, investment and value. When wellbeing is high learning can take place.

Further reading

National Strategies (2008). Social and Emotional Aspects of Development Guidance for practitioners working in the Early Years Foundation Stage.  London: Department for Children, Schools & Families.

Points for Practitioners on Atttachment – extract from Dukes, C. and Smith, M. (2009). Building Better Behaviour in the Early Years, London: SAGE

O’Connor, A. (2008). Positive relationships: key people Parts 1-5.  In Nursery World 2008 (various).   (Link requires Nursery World subscription).

Page updated Autumn 2019 by Cathy Gunning