Sunday, 27 April 2008

The role of the key person, and children's experiences of parting from their parents

I've been thinking a bit about children's experiences of parting from their parents, after reading Anna Freud's account of running the Hampstead Nursery during World War 2.

I'm also looking for participants for a small piece of research into the care of children in nursery settings. If you are a nursery nurse or nursery teacher in/close to London, please have a look at the note at the end of this piece.

Here are my thoughts:

I am sitting at the desk by the front door of the nursery where I'm the head, and I hear crying, then a clutter of doors. A mother comes past, glances at me and says "oh no, I timed that all wrong." We speak for a few minutes before she has to leave for work. She had settled her little boy in with his key person, she explains. He was playing happily and she started to move away. If she had just left then, it would have all been alright. But she had waited a few more minutes, then he had looked round at her and become distressed as she started to leave. I reassure her and say that her child's key person can phone later in the morning to let her know how things are going.

As expected, the child settled after a while, and his key person was able to phone later to say how he was and what play he had been involved in. But it made me wonder about whether there really is a knack to getting the timing just right when you drop your child off. It is so easy to feel that you are getting it wrong at either extreme - hurrying off too fast, or hanging around and maybe causing your anxieties to rub off on your child. It also struck me that in nurseries we often put a lot of emphasis on calmness, and a general cheerfulness. If you're the parent whose child cries and gets upset, it must be easy to feel that all eyes are on you, that your child is making a fuss or you are getting it all wrong.

Perhaps there is something of a myth of the ideal drop-off in nurseries. Of course many children are well settled and come into nursery very happily. But I wonder what it might sometimes cost a child, to come and settle in "without a fuss"? Sometimes children can seem quite startled early in the morning, or seem unusually subdued during the day, as if they did not really have time to find their place and adjust to being in nursery.

The little boy might not have cried if his mother had left more quickly, but I wonder who would have benefited in the end? We can put a lot of emphasis on nurseries feeling calm and children being sensible, big boys and girls who can let their parents go without making a fuss, but in the end this is only better for children in the sense, as Anna Freud argued, that "we would all be better off, i.e., more sensible, without emotions." The important thing for little children is not to create conditions in which they are kept safe from mixed up and difficult feelings. We would do better to allow children to go through what Anna Freud called the "the painful and often disturbing process of learning how to deal with such emotions."

I'm looking for people who are working with children in nurseries who would like to help me with a small research project about the role of the key person. The dates - the 5th, 12th, 19th and 26th June from 1pm-4pm in central London. You will need to be able to come to all 4 sessions.

Participants in this group will have the opportunity to discuss how they understand their role as a key person, and consider how to develop their practice to provide intimate, playful and responsive care for babies and toddlers.

Interested? Email me at to join in; please put "key person" in the subject line.