Ten steps to creating a positive and successful introduction process for new children

16th February, 2022

Written by Angela Bush

Bachelor of Education (ECE), Diploma of Nursing, Diploma of Teaching (ECE)
I recently wrote about settling strategies for infants and toddlers. This included a range of ways in which early childhood teams can work together to support our youngest children and their family through an emotionally challenging time. For any child who is struggling with settling, this is a critical time where their whole wellbeing must be at the forefront of our priorities.

And while it is useful to have a kete of strategies that can be effective in settling children, if we have created a successful induction process in the first place, then we should only need settling strategies for a very short time, if at all.

At the heart of every early childhood curriculum around the world lies a fundamental value for relationships. As early years professionals we have a clear understanding of the importance of building and maintaining strong, reciprocal, responsive relationships with children and their families. 

Neuroscience research strongly informs us that our youngest children are reliant on healthy, caring, responsive relationships with a few people in their early years to ensure they have the optimum environment for healthy brain development. Central to this notion is the need for stress levels to be kept to a minimum for our youngest children.

For infants and toddlers making the transition from home based care into group care, this is a particularly vulnerable time when they may be exposed to higher than usual levels of stress. This is an enormous change in a young child’s life that must not be underestimated.

Nathan Wallis (neuroscience educator) reminds us;

“The relationships a child has in their early years are so important in terms of wiring their brains up.”
“Essentially, when it comes to helping them to grow resilience, children need to experience relationships where there is love, trust and empathy – especially when encountering challenges and when emotions are running high.”

Have no doubt, for infants and toddlers creating a positive, successful transition from home to group care is critical.

After more than thirty years in early childhood education, I can speak from experience when I say that I have seen over and over again, how much better it is for children and parents when early childhood services put into place a planned, well considered induction process for the whole family.
And yet, despite knowing how important relationships are, and knowing the significance of the research, we still see children starting in group care with very little consideration for the enormous transition that this is for the child and family. The outcome of a poorly planned transition into group care is often a very unsettled and distressed child for quite some time. At it’s worst this is potentially damaging to children. And research aside, this simply breaks my heart. Because it need not happen.
In a recent webinar with Pennie Brownlee I remember she so aptly said “Would you move in with someone who you had only known for an hour?"
Well unless you are on a dreadful reality TV show such as “Married at first sight,” for most of us we would not dream of it. And yet this is EXACTLY what we do to our youngest children who have no choice in the matter.

Over the years I have seen a range of practices that frankly make me shiver to think about;

  • Parents visiting to choose a service and starting their child the next week, or even worse the next day.
  • Children starting in care who came to visit the service only once.
  • Children starting in care with one teacher one day, and another teacher the next day.
  • Crying children being passed from one teacher to another while they take their breaks, or attend to tasks.
  • Multiple new children starting at the same time, on the same days. Children screaming as they are peeled from their mother’s arms.

In these situations, we are basically making a very young, vulnerable child move in with strangers into a highly stressful and frankly non existent arranged relationship.

So what should we be doing differently?

How can we ensure children and families are given the best opportunity
for a positive, successful transition into our care that keeps relationships and the wellbeing of children at the heart?

Start by putting a stake firmly in the ground.

I have great faith that 99% of early childhood teachers want the best for our children. They understand WHY positive transition into the centre is so important, and yet they continue with practices that are detrimental to children. I understand that this is a very contentious thing to say because for many teachers, they have no control over when children are enrolled, decisions made by management, and what parents may need.

And I hear you say “BUT parents don’t have time for a lengthy induction process!”

BUT if early childhood teachers don’t advocate for our youngest children, based on what they KNOW is right, then who will?! It is time for early childhood teachers to speak up, put their stake in the ground and say “we must do this differently.”

And if you are a leader or manager of an ECE service who has the power to create policy, and set the “way we do things here,” then the wellbeing of children is firmly in your hands. Your induction and settling processes.

Discuss your why as a team

Make time as a team to discuss what is important for new children and families and create shared agreement about why this is important.
How does this important process align with your service’s philosophy?
If relationships are truly at the heart of your philosophy, then how is this evident in your induction processes.
Create an induction strategy that includes;

1. Building a relationship

In any new relationship, time must be given to get to know one another. Parents and children will need multiple visits to the room they will be starting in so that they can begin to build a relationship with the people who will be caring for them. Assign a primary care giver or key teacher to this family, and ensure this person has time and space to be with this family when they come to visit. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have to sit with the parents the whole time, but certainly on the first couple of visits, the key teacher should be spending some time talking with the child’s parents or main family members.

This relationship building should be reciprocal – both parties getting to know each other. Remember you are a complete stranger, about to start taking care of this family’s most precious person. How can you share a little of yourself too, so that this family can begin to feel that you are trustworthy and no longer a stranger to them?

2. Getting to know you

Many ECE services will have a “Getting to know you” type form that they ask parents to complete so that they know what this child’s needs are. Especially for babies e.g. how many bottles and when, what this child prefers to eat, when they sleep etc. BUT completing a form with the basic information about this child’s routines is often where this information exchange stops. It is surface level and basic only.

The key teacher needs to spend time actually getting to know this child and family at a deeper level. I therefore say, don’t simply ask the parents to complete the form. Sit with the family and complete the form together. Use the questions as an opportunity to build a stronger understanding of this young person that you will be caring for in relationship.

Ask not only how many bottles does this child have but, how do they like to be held? What matters to your family? How are you feeling about leaving your child here? How can I support you in this? What do I need to know about your family’s culture that is important to you? And so much more!

3. Visit, stay and play

Insist that the child has the opportunity to visit, stay and play for as many visits as necessary. There is no magic number of visits that works for every child. But think about how much there is for this child and their family to absorb and begin to understand in this new environment.

A successful induction process will include plenty of time for children and their parents/family members to visit, spend time playing, observing and becoming familiar with this new place. Your service will have routines, rituals, rules and ways of doing things that are not likely to be familiar to this family.

The more a child has the opportunity to play in this new space with their familiar family alongside them, the sooner they will start to feel confident in this place and with these new people. Children will take their cues from how their parents are feeling. When children are able to see their parents feeling relaxed in this place, they too come to know that this is somewhere I can trust.

4. Spend time engaging with the child in play.

Each time the child comes to visit, it is imperative that the key teacher spends time engaging with the child. Sit alongside their parents at first, talking and playing with the child (as much as they allow you to). Play together and show a genuine interest in getting to know this child.

How do they communicate both verbally and non verbally?

5. Show the child and their family where everything is, and what to do.

It goes without saying that YOU know where everything belongs, but parents do not. So, take time to show them where to put their child’s bag, where their child will sleep, where to sign in and out, what happens if there is an accident and they need to sign the accident record, where the bathrooms are (adults and children’s), introduce them to all staff and show them around the whole centre not just your room. Take time to tell them about your philosophy and how this influences your routines, curriculum and approach to conflict resolution.

6. Include the child in meal routines

In a home environment, this child is unlikely to be sitting at a table amongst lots of other children the same age and size as them. They may be in a high chair, or sit in front of the tv to eat. Their parents may spoon feed them, or they may walk around eating. It is highly likely that your centre will have meal time routines that are unfamiliar to this child and family. And yet this is the time and space where we can connect with children over food. The meal table is where we nourish not only little stomachs, but also their minds, hearts and souls. For parents, often one of their biggest concerns will be around their child getting enough to eat and drink. Therefore, it is reassuring to parents to see that their child is eating and drinking with you.

7. Change the child's nappy together

The first time the child has their nappy changed in the centre, should ideally be done by their parent. The primary caregiver can take this opportunity to observe and build their understanding of how this intimate moment is usually handled by the parent. Does this child co-operate in this care moment? Do they prefer to stand up when they are changed?

Once the relationship between the primary caregiver and the child has begun to feel some connection, the next nappy change can be done by the primary caregiver with the parent alongside so that the child can see that this is a trusting relationship and can continue to build confidence in their new caregiver. This is also an opportunity to build understanding of this child’s usual bowel habits. An important thing to know.

8. Sleeping at the centre should be the last step

Falling asleep in this new place will often be one of the most difficult moments for children when they start in group care. There are such a lot of potential variables that can make this overwhelming for a young child. This can include; the constant noise, the sleep room door being opened and closed every ten minutes, the unfamiliarity of the room and the bed, and the linen. It is really important that the primary caregiver develops an understanding of how this child goes to sleep. Do they sleep on their back or their side? Do they like to be wrapped, rocked or left alone? Do they have a comfort item they need for sleep? Do they feel hot or cool when they sleep?

The child’s first sleep in the centre should happen with a parent there. Ideally the parent will take the child for their first sleep with the primary caregiver observing so that they can learn the nuances of this child’s routine. AND equally important, the parent should be there to greet the child when they wake for the first time. Just as they would at home. Then the next time the child goes to sleep at the centre can be with the caregiver taking the lead and the parent alongside.

9. Create an agreed plan for separation

Discuss and create an agreed plan with the parents for leaving the child for the first few times. For infants and toddlers, they should not be left with the new caregiver until it is clear that the child is beginning to feel trust and confidence with them. After all the other steps have been in place, and the child is eating, sleeping and interacting confidently with their caregiver, then it is time to plan for the parents to begin leaving the child in your care. Initially this should only be for shorter periods until the child is able to cope with longer stretches in your care.

10. Coach parents in how to say goodbye

Remember this is an emotional time and possibly the first time that parents have had to leave their child with someone else. Most parents will need some guidance in how to settle and say goodbye to their child. If you have successfully followed the first nine recommendations in this induction process, then the actual time of separation for the parents and child should be a time of confidence and trust. The induction process is for the parents and family, as much as it is for the child. But for many parents, they may still need your professional guidance in how to create a drop off routine and how to say goodbye positively.

Creating a consistent and predictable drop off routine is helpful for everyone in this relationship. If parents do the same things, in the same order at every drop off time, this makes the process much easier for the caregiver to anticipate when they may need to offer a hug, or be alongside the child when their parent says goodbye. A consistent drop off routine also helps the child to become familiar with what is going to happen. And parents will often need to be coached in the importance of saying goodbye and then walking out of the room. Lingering, or prolonging saying goodbye often makes the actual moment of separation more difficult for everyone. And it is important that parents are advised never to sneak out to avoid tears.

The length of time it takes to positively and successfully transition a new child into your care, will vary. But at the minimum I suggest that this is likely to be a two – three week process that includes multiple visits. Afterall, remember this child is moving in with you at your ECE service and you are all strangers in a strange land.

Remember to keep checking in with this family for weeks after their successful transition. Send photos of the child and document their settling weeks. Continue to reassure this family that their child is being cared for and loved.

Laying the foundations for a relationship with this child and their family starts well before the first day they are left in your care. As early childhood professionals we have a responsibility to prioritise children's whole wellbeing. And we have the power to guide a positive and successful induction process that has the child and family at the heart.

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