Last reviewed 12 February 2021

A high proportion of nursery workers have experienced working with children facing extremely complex backgrounds and challenging emotional and behavioural needs, according to a new report from the Anna Freud Centre.

The report, Their challenges are our challenges, reveals that many early years practitioners feel under-prepared for this side of the job and want more access to training. Domestic violence, parental substance use, abuse and bereavement were listed as some of the issues affecting children in early years settings. Other challenges involved different emotional or mental health needs and the effects of the pandemic were also a cause for concern.

The Anna Freud Centre surveyed more than 900 UK nursery staff during the last three months of 2020. Key findings include:

  • 69% of nursery staff who responded said they had experienced working with babies or children affected by trauma or abuse

  • 71% of nursery staff said they had worked with babies and children affected by domestic violence

  • 60% reported that they had worked with babies or children from families affected by substance usage

  • almost half (48%) said they had worked with children who had experienced the bereavement of either a parent or sibling

  • 42% of staff said they had noticed signs that children in their care had had their emotional wellbeing affected by the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown

  • three quarters (75%) of staff said they had looked after young children who displayed “unusually aggressive or violent behaviour”

  • 91% said they had dealt with challenging situations that involved children who potentially had mental health issues, or social or emotional difficulties.

The survey also looked at the impact that dealing with these challenging needs was having on nursery staff themselves, and how equipped they felt in dealing with them. Many admitted to feeling stressed, upset, and out of their depth at times with over half of respondents saying they had not received any additional training that related to early years mental health.

Dr Camilla Rosan, Head of the Early Years Programme at the Anna Freud Centre, said:

“The early years are the most important in terms of a child’s development, and the results of this survey are truly eye opening. When most of us think about who will be directly supporting our most vulnerable children and families, we normally think of social workers and mental health professionals. But we forget that our nursery workers are engaging with vulnerable children on a daily basis. Aside from their own families, these children probably spend more time with nursery workers than anyone else during their early formative years. This research should fundamentally shift the way we view the role of nursery workers within our society.”

The full report is available here.