Managing the nursery day – Strategies to support children’s emotional wellbeing

For both children and staff the nursery day is full of surprises as the routine and activities occur and children’s emotional reactions to them are expressed, sometimes in quite challenging and unpredictable ways. The emotional cues that children show can be used as a way of understanding, predicting and managing these times.

The beginning of the day can sometimes be quite loud and chaotic as both parents and children attempt to manage their own emotional responses to being separated.  Some children who have experienced inconsistent and erratic parenting may have no sense of parental permanence and therefore when the parent leaves how do they know that they haven’t left forever? When a loved person isn’t there and a child is too young to understand why, it can be extremely painful. When a child is suffering because of the absence of their parent, the same parts of the brain are activated as when they are feeling physical pain. Therefore, for young children the feelings of loss are similar to the feelings of physical pain and should be addressed with the same empathy and support.

Kanika aged three has been at nursery for four weeks, is extremely distressed on arrival and screams, cries and clings to her parents. After they have left she stands at the door gazing out, sucking her thumb and twiddling her hair.  She tries to escape at any opportunity and becomes agitated again when her attempts are thwarted. Her keyworker Sam and I explored Kanika’s background and previous experience as a way of understanding her anxiety. She has been living in the Caribbean with her Grandma for the past year while her parents came to England to find work and she recently joined them. We discussed these experiences and identified the themes of loss in her life Ie. Loss of Grandma, loss of familiar home etc. The impact of this trauma has resulted in her feeling unsafe and terrified. Trauma usually generates a fight or flight response as stress hormones are activated, which would explain her urgent attempts to leave the nursery. She has developed self soothing as a way of managing this distress and now needs help from an adult to reduce this .

We discussed the need for something familiar linked to Grandma to help her and I suggested music as it’s sensory and soothing. I encouraged Sam to explore this with her parents and to discuss the impact of this loss, to help them understand her behaviour. I suggested she attune and meet the emotional intensity of what Kanika is feeling by using a calming tone and facial expression that models this, and validates how Kanika is feeling by affirming this Eg.” I can see you’re really scared that mummy is leaving now.”  This will help her feel less alone and overwhelmed and feel more contained. When children are distressed they discharge feelings rather than processing them through thought, and they need adults to name their feelings for them so they feel connected to and understood. As she is not yet developmentally capable of finding the words to express how she feels, she needs help from a caring adult to provide her with the words.

Kanika’s Grandma sent CD’s over and the nursery play them when she arrives, much to her delight. She has been dancing and showing the other children who are happy to join in. Sam now feels more confident in her responses if she gets distressed and is encouraging her to draw pictures which her parents send to Grandma, along with talking about her more. Prior to meeting with Sam, they had thought it was best not to mention her. Kanika appears to be happier and more settled now.

The impact of family background and external circumstances in children’s lives is paramount to shaping who they are and how they respond to every event in their day. For nursery practitioners to be able to explore the impact of this is crucial in gainer a deeper understanding of the children they work with and developing a greater ability to meet their needs.

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