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The Importance of Staff and Child Wellbeing in the Early Years

Written by Zaina Shihabi, Centre Director, Blossom Mudon

It is a typical morning at our early learning centre in Dubai. Parents and children start approaching our doors at 7:45 a.m., while our teachers conduct their daily risk assessments before the children enter the classroom. As our teachers arrive at the reception to take the children to the classrooms, my favourite part of the day begins: greeting the children in the morning. Every day, our teachers greet each child individually, showing them how important they are and how happy they are to see them; the focus on well-being through providing an environment that is inclusive and values each child begins here.

Wellbeing is not a separate aspect of early childhood education, especially in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum;1 it is ingrained in everything we do. The first theme of the NCFE Cache Level 3 Diploma in Childcare and Education (Early Years Educator) is titled: ‘Health and Well-being’, with units covering healthy lifestyles through proper nutrition, exercise, physical care routines, and promoting children’s emotional well-being (NCFE Cache 2022).2 Additionally, one of the prime areas of learning and development in the EYFS statutory framework is Personal, Social and Emotional Development. From the moment a child enters the nursery, it is our job to ensure that they feel safe, included, valued, seen, heard, and cared for.

But what is well-being in the early years, why is it important, and how do we promote and apply it in practice successfully? To begin answering these questions, it must be clarified at the outset that a focus on well-being in the early years is essential for both children and educators; as Kate Moxley succinctly puts it in her book A Guide to Mental Health for Early Years Educators, ‘happy, healthy, thriving staff = happy, healthy, flourishing children’ (Moxley 2022, 3). Before providing some perspectives on these questions, however, a discussion on the importance of early childhood education and the growth of the early childhood sector in Dubai is provided for context.

The growth and importance of the early childhood education sector in Dubai

In a 2011 Dubai School Government Policy Briefing titled ‘Early Childhood Education in Dubai’, Juman Karaman provided context on the importance of early childhood education, a history of early childhood centres in Dubai, data pertaining to the number of early childhood centres and nurseries in Dubai, the number of children attending nurseries from 1996 to 2009, governance, the quality of teaching staff, and challenges and gaps in early childhood education in Dubai. One of the recommendations put forth by Karaman included raising public awareness about the importance and benefits of early childhood education ‘among parents, policymakers and the public’ (Karaman 2011, 7).

At that time, the most recent recorded number of children registered in nurseries in Dubai (2009) was 7,594 children (ibid, 3). On the 3rd of January of this year, a study conducted by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) titled ‘Growing Up Fast .. Early Childhood Centers in Dubai’ was published on the KHDA website. The study revealed findings from the 2022-2023 Academic year, which showed that there has been a 15 per cent increase in the number of enrolments in Dubai-based early childhood centres in the past year alone, which makes the most recent recorded number of children registered in early childhood centres 23,779 children (KHDA 2024), a 213 per cent

1 ‘The EYFS only applies to schools and early years providers in England. The early years foundation stage (EYFS) sets standards for the learning, development and care of your child from birth to 5 years old’ (Early Years Foundation Stage, 2 The Cache Level 3 is requirement for early years educators in Blossom Nurseries. Junior Educators, or teaching assistants, are required to complete the Cache level 2.

increase since 2009. Additionally, the study also found that 78 per cent of children attending ELCs attend five days per week and that 81 per cent of centres in Dubai are open all year round (ibid).

These findings are significant, as they not only show the considerable growth the early learning sector is undergoing, but also show the importance of employing, training and retaining qualified early years practitioners; as the former Director General of the KHDA, Dr Abdulla Al Karam said in 2022: ‘Dubai is a future-focused city, and its future lies in cultivating our children’s wellbeing, their sense of wonder and their love of learning. Everyone benefits when every parent of a young child in Dubai has access to high-quality education for their children (KHDA 2022).

What is wellbeing?

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines wellbeing as ‘the psychological, cognitive, social and physical functioning and capabilities that students need to live a happy and fulfilling life’ (OECD 2015), and Psychology Today defines wellbeing as ‘the experience of health, happiness, and prosperity’ which includes ‘having good mental health, high life satisfaction, a sense of meaning or purpose, and the ability to manage stress’ (Davis 2019). In the early years, wellbeing is promoted through providing emotional support by helping children to develop close and trusting relationships (or attachments) with ‘key persons’, communicating consistently with the children in your care to help develop their communication and language skills, promoting inclusion and celebrating diversity, working closely and developing good relationships with parents in order to form a strong child-centred partnership, planning and implementing activities that support children’s learning and development, and providing a safe, positive and encouraging environment conducive to learning and growth (Tssoni 2014, 59-60).

What the science tells us about early childhood education and wellbeing in the early years

In her book titled The Neuroscience of the Developing Child, Mine Conkbayir explains that positive relationships and experiences are of vital and ‘fundamental importance […] in shaping early brain development, as between birth and five years old the brain develops ‘exponentially more than at any other time in life’ (Conkbayir 2023, 93). Conkbayir goes on to explain that ‘being exposed to stress or trauma’ during this time can ‘disrupt the healthy development of a child’s brain’ (ibid, 96). By the time a child is three years old, ‘the brain is about 80 per cent of an adult brain’ (ibid, 110). Conkbayir further explains that at this age, the number of connections made by neurons in the brain (or synapses) is approximately 15,000 per neuron ‘roughly twice that of the average adult brain. Never again in the life course does the brain make so many connections’ (ibid). By five years old, the brain is at approximately 90 per cent of an adult brain, and although our brains can continue to connect things and acquire new knowledge throughout our adult lives, this is the point at which the ‘brain regions responsible for language, emotional, physical and social development begin to close down as the brain becomes more organized and, as a result, less malleable and more adult-like (ibid, 105). With such a vital role to play in providing an environment in which children can flourish, teachers must be valued, and their wellbeing must be prioritised.

Recently, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, wellbeing has emerged as a central concern. This is evident in some of the initiatives, briefings and frameworks that have surfaced over the past few years. The OECD, for example, placed ‘collective wellbeing’ at the centre of its Learning Compass 2030, an ‘evolving learning framework that sets out an aspirational vision for the future of education’ (OECD 2019) and UNICEF published a briefing in 2022 titled: ‘Five essential pillars for promoting and protecting mental health and psychosocial well-being in schools and learning environments’, that includes recommendations which focus on strengthening and promoting the ‘mental health and psychosocial well-being of children and adolescents, including support for their teachers and caregivers’ (UNICEF 2022). In Dubai, a framework titled ‘Wellbeing Matters: A guiding framework for the monitoring and improvement of wellbeing in Dubai private schools’ was published in 2022 by the KHDA. This framework provides actionable points that can be applied to private schools and nurseries alike. After highlighting examples of ‘improved educational outcomes’ linked with wellbeing, such as ‘improved levels of school engagement, improved mental health, higher levels of selfesteem and self-efficacy, and decreased likelihood of dropping out of school’ (KHDA 2022), the authors highlighted the importance of teacher wellbeing, asserting that ‘teacher wellbeing, and that of other staff members must be a core, strategic focus for school leaders in the quest for greater levels of student wellbeing’ (ibid).

What can we do?

As Moxley asserts ‘to be in a position where we can take care of others, we must prioritise our own health and wellbeing and take of ourselves (Mainstone-Ciotton 2018 as quoted in Moxley, 22). She goes on to explain that there is an ‘inextricable link between children’s welling and that of their caregivers’ (ibid). The KHDA framework ‘Wellbeing Matters’ provides five guiding principles to aid in further development of the ‘quality of wellbeing provision and outcomes’ in schools. These guiding principles include ensuring that schools are student and family focused (i.e., children must feel like they belong in their setting and must be able to see themselves in the school culture); a focus on strengths rather than on weaknesses; equity; diversity; and collective inclusion (ibid, 8). In addition to these principles, the authors recommend creating a ‘shared vision of wellbeing’; creating an enabling environment; open communication; and a focus on healthy lifestyles (ibid, 9).

How can we apply these guidelines and recommendations in practice?

Acknowledging and validating children’s feelings, helping them self-regulate, and teaching them that there is a range of feelings that they can experience and that all of them are valid are fundamental to promoting children’s wellbeing. Self-regulation is ‘our ability to regulate (or manage) our thoughts, feelings and behaviour’ (Conkbayir, 2). When we are able to self-regulate, we ‘remain calm […] rather than react in the face of our many strong emotions and responses to stressors in life’ (ibid). Helping children self-regulate includes connecting with children and helping them understand the many different emotions we experience, talking to them about how they can cope, teaching them healthy ways of expressing their feelings, giving them opportunities to reflect on their feelings, and encouraging them to be aware of their thoughts and actions. 

The following is a (non-exhaustive) list of recommendations that can be implemented to support teacher wellbeing:

• A clear, shared vision, shared regularly through a variety of ways to remind staff members of their importance and the collective ‘why’. • Clear and consistent communication. • Ensuring that staff members are aware of policies and protocols.

• Providing an inclusive non-discriminatory environment that values diversity.

• Providing opportunities for staff to express their opinions, share challenges, and share ideas and best practice.

• A wellbeing policy for staff which includes resources and a clear process for addressing emotional difficulties or stress. This should contain guidance on how staff can reach out for support, along with designated contacts who can help.

• Support and training for teachers on how to provide effective strategies to help children of determination along with a variety of resources and how to use them effectively. • Ongoing training and workshops on relevant topics pertaining to early childhood education. • Regular sharing of knowledge with parents on the important role of early childhood educators to create awareness and reduce misconceptions.

• Emotional intelligence training and creating awareness around ‘autopilot’ and ‘self-awareness’.

• Information about how to recognise signs and symptoms of stress or burnout.

• Encouraging leaders to lead by example by discouraging working overtime or on the weekends.

• Training leaders to identify signs of exhaustion or burnout and what to do if they are identified.

• Encouraging wellbeing practices for staff members and providing time to engage in these practices as a group (such as team yoga or exercise, outings/team building, etc.)

• Encouraging healthy eating practices and regular exercise.

• Providing visible trajectories for staff members by providing consistent training opportunities and mentorship.

• Working together to eliminate the stigma of asking for help or the fear associated with being labelled. • Equating mental health with physical health.

• If possible, providing on-site counselling and support, or providing staff members with healthcare that includes wellbeing support.

• Treating staff members as individuals, taking them time to get to know them.

• Checking in on staff members when they or their family members are unwell.

• Creating recognition programmes, such as ‘performance-based incentives, or peer recognition platforms’ (Stanciu 2023).

• Providing clear, consistent, relevant, and useful feedback.

• Creating a ‘culture of kindness and accountability’ (Moxley, 118).

As mentioned, this list is by no means all-inclusive, and there is no ‘one-size-fits-all approach’ to promoting and implementing practices that support wellbeing; different settings require different approaches. The first step centres can take towards understanding how to support teachers is to ask them about the struggles they are facing. This can be accomplished through a short survey or one-on-one discussions. As a result, an individualised wellbeing plan which addresses their specific needs and challenges can be developed.

In this article, I have attempted to answer questions relating to wellbeing in the early years and its importance, and I have offered some recommendations on how centres can implement practices that promote wellbeing in early learning centres. Although the answer to what defines success is varied and subjective, early learning centres must make consistent efforts towards improving wellbeing by ensuring both the physical and emotional safety of children and staff by creating policies and documentation to support and evidence their efforts.

References "Early Years Foundation Stage." UK Government. Accessed March 30, 2024. foundationstage#:~: text=The%20EYFS%20only%20applies%20to,early%20years%20standards%20in%20Wales.

Conkbayir, Mine. 2023. The Neuroscience of the Developing Child: Self-Regulation for Wellbeing and a  Sustainable Future. New York: Routledge.

Moxley, Kate. 2022. A Guide to Mental Health for Early Years Educators: Putting Wellbeing at the Heart of Your Philosophy and Practice. New York: Routledge.

"NCFE CACHE Level 3 Diploma for the Early Years Workforce (Early Years Educator)." 2022. NCFE Cache Qualification Specification, QN: 601/2629/2.

Karaman, Juman. 2011. "Early Childhood Education in Dubai." Dubai School Government Policy Briefing, Policy Brief No. 23. Accessed March 31, 2024. ng.pdf.

"Growing Up Fast .. Early Childhood Centers in Dubai." 2024. Knowledge and Human Development Authority, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Accessed March 30, 2024. Fast/ECC_Landscape_Infographic_En.pdf.aspx?lang=en-GB.

2022. Government of Dubai. Accessed March 30, 2024. Us/News/2022/Dubai%E2%80%99s-early-childhood-education-sector-hits-mile.

OECD. 2017. PISA 2015 Results (Volume III): Students’ Well-Being. Paris: OECD Publishing. Davis, T. 2019. "What Is Well-Being? Definition, Types, and Well-Being Skills: Want to grow your well-being? Here are the skills you need." Psychology Today. Accessed March 30, 2024. and-well-being-skills.

Tassoni, P. 2014. Early Years Educator for the work-based learner. UK: Hodder Education.

Gardner, H. 2019. "OECD Learning Compass 2030: Towards Collective Wellbeing." OECD. Accessed March 30, 2024. 2030/.

Teacher Wellbeing Survey. 2022. NASUWT. Accessed March 30, 2024. Report-2022.pdf.

National Child Care Standards. 2009. Dubai Women Establishment. Accessed March 30, 2024. file:///Users/zainashihabi/Downloads/En%20National%20Child%20Care%20Standards%20(1).pdf.

Stanciu, T. 2023. "12 Employee Wellbeing Initiatives From HR Influencers to Implement in 2023." The Mirro Blog. Accessed March 31, 2024.

"Five essential pillars for promoting and protecting mental health and psychosocial well-being in schools and learning environments." 2022. UNICEF Education Section, Programme Division. Accessed March 30, 2024.

"Wellbeing Matters: A guiding framework for the monitoring and improvement of wellbeing in Dubai private schools." 2022. Knowledge and Human Development Authority, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Accessed March 30, 2024. Inspection/Wellbeing-Matters-A-guiding-framework-for-the-moni/WellbeingMatters- Eng.pdf.aspx?lang=en-GB&ext=.pdf.

Further reading

How to Grow Teacher Wellbeing in Your Schools. n.d. REL Pacific in collaboration with the Cross-REL Working Group on Social and Emotional Learning and the Social and Behavioral Context for Academic Learning portfolio at the National Center for Education Research. Accessed March 30, 2024. ools.pdf.

"Chapter 1. Why early learning and child well-being matter." 2020. Early Learning and Child Well-being: A Study of Five-year-olds in England, Estonia, and the United States. OECD. Accessed March 30, 2024. Melhuish, E. 2014. "The impact of early childhood education and care on improved wellbeing." University of Wollongong Research Online. Accessed March 30, 2024.

Stein, R. et al. 2022. "It Matters: Early Childhood Mental Health, Educator Stress, and Burnout." Early Childhood Education Journal, 1–12. DOI: 10.1007/s10643-022-01438-8. Accessed March 30, 2024.

Bennett Report. 2009. "Early Childhood and Education Services in Dubai." Knowledge and Human Development Authority, Dubai. Accessed March 30, 2024. e2f60ccc3eb5/20160328093947_Early_Childhood_Education_-_Care_-_Executive_Report_-_Eng.pdf.aspx.