Leading during challenging times

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

The current climate is one we have never experienced. We don’t have the solutions in our staff handbook, a policy to follow or a risk assessment to complete. We are in completely new territory and this can be daunting for any leader. In the early years sector, we are used to change, albeit with notice, collaboration, consultation and a period in which to prepare. Having to change our processes and procedures literally overnight is unprecedented and can lead to a great deal of stress and anxiety for the whole team. It is during periods like this where leaders are said to sink or swim, although I’ve found most of us are doggy paddling our way through these murky waters.



It is also during these times of pressure that leaders really find out what kind of team they have built. Your team will either be behind you, supporting you and cheering you on or they will be in front of the queue for furlough. The work you have put in, or not put in, during your time leading your team will determine how well you pull together during challenging times.

Early years practitioners will be feeling the extra stress of the current climate. They will be concerned about their jobs, their key children and the families they support. As a leader, trying to make some sense out of the daily Government announcements, it can be hard to help staff members cope with stress, especially when you, too, are worried. So how can you look after the concerns of your staff team in such a changing climate?


Acknowledge their concerns

We hear lots of advice about affirmative leadership, deflecting negativity in the workplace and creating a positive work culture. Whilst this is generally a strong way to lead, in times of adversity it is important to acknowledge the worries, fears and concerns your team may have. By rejecting what may be seen as negative discourse, leaders can fuel rumours and encourage speculation, leading to mistrust and increased anxiety. Meet with your staff team, both as a team and individually to hear their concerns and really understand how they are feeling. The worries of one practitioner may be completely different to another, however there are bound to be some shared concerns too. In early years, we encourage the voice of the child and the parent, don’t neglect the voice of the practitioner too.

Whilst recognising the concerns your team have, help them to understand that you may have the same fears and you may not have the answers yet. Be honest and open, it’s ok to show some vulnerability as a leader, you’re not expected to have all the answers all of the time. Your team will appreciate candid conversations that empower them to make the right decisions for themselves.


Communicate your intentions

Whilst listening to the concerns of your team is important, it’s time for you as a leader to step up and show your leadership skills. Developing a plan that is clear, moves everyone forward and addresses their worries is essential. How you communicate this plan will be crucial to the buy in you gain from your team during the time of change. Your team need to see you have a handle on events going forward, so provide them with the detail you have and explain where you still need to fill in the gaps. Let them know what you need from them in order to execute the plan and how they can help. Give timelines on when you will update them and how you would like them to communicate with you throughout the period. This will give clarity and a sense of calm as everyone has the same information along with a timeline to work with. This reassurance should help your team to focus on their individual job roles instead of worrying about what might be. If you are managing you team remotely, communication is extremely important. You may find using communication tools such as WhatsApp are great for this, however, ensure you use these apps appropriately and remain compliant, find out more here https://www.thekeyleadership.co.uk/Safe-Communication


Identify and adjust priorities

Educating and caring for under 5’s is a tough job and practitioners in the sector work hard to ensure their roles are taken seriously. Being a practitioner is stressful and relentless, therefore it is important not to add to already heavy workloads. Now is the time to take a step back and reassess how you work. What are your priorities in this changing climate and how can you ensure the business continues to flourish whilst balancing the needs of the staff, children and families? What may have been important just last week, may no longer be a priority for your team or your business and this is ok. Take time to think this through and be clear on those essential jobs that need to be done, whilst parking the others for another, less stressful time.


Consider the culture

In general, early years settings are a great place to work, with a culture of inclusivity, care and support. This, of course, is not the same in every setting all of the time, but as a rule, we are a caring bunch. The culture of your setting can either alleviate stress or add to it and culture isn’t something that can be changed overnight. Checking in on the culture of your setting isn’t easy as a leader, it requires that you remove your rose tinted glasses and really

see your setting for what it is, warts and all. Think about your setting values, are you living and breathing these? Empower your senior team to identify values to which you should aspire and to gather the thoughts and feelings of the rest of the team about whether you are truly working within these values. Where are you falling short and what can you do quickly and easily to address any areas that need improving?


Commit to wellbeing

Your own wellbeing and that of your team is the most important thing during challenging times. The wellbeing and emotional health of your team is so important during times of stress so identify ways in which you can support staff wellbeing across your setting. We go further into addressing this issue in our wellbeing bundle. Where possible accommodate the needs of your team. This may be reducing hours, flexing their schedule or offering to increase break times to accommodate time out of the setting. Identifying ways that teams can support each other, perhaps with gratitude notes or staff shout outs can boost morale and help that practitioner to reach Friday without a confidence wobble. Wellbeing is so much more than a basket of goodies in the staff room, great leaders will look at the individual needs of their team as well as collective wishes and provide a working environment that support and encourages emotional health for all.


Leading a setting during tough times isn't easy, but withthe right support and tools you can be successful. Take a look at our resource bundle - Leadership in Tough Times - for downloadable resources to help you manage your setting in tough times.

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