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‘Professional Love’ in Early Years Settings

Professional Love in Early Years settings (PLEYS) was a piece of research led by Dr. Jools Page and a small team of researchers at the University of Sheffield looking into the research gap and to give confidence to early years practitioners when working closely and intimately with young children.

Before looking at the research and its outcomes in more detail, the meaning and concept of Professional Love needs to be examined. Dr. Jools Page developed the concept ‘Professional Love’ to try to understand the intimacies that arise for practitioners within day care settings who sometimes state how difficult it is to express their emotions and affections when caring for young children in their role of loco parentis. The expression of these emotions is fraught with anxiety for practitioners, especially in the light of the media’s exposure of safeguarding cases. 

The research began with an online survey which had an overall response of 793. This unexpected high level of return again highlighted the fact that the concept of love in early years settings was of great concern to practitioners. The survey was followed up by interviews with consenting respondents and focus group interviews with practitioners from Fennies Nurseries - the nursery that the research team was working in partnership with.

The data demonstrated that an overwhelming majority of practitioners have a very positive, confident attitude towards the role of ‘Professional Love’ as part of their practice in early-years settings. Most practitioners explained that they are comfortable in enacting professionally loving practices such as hugging and using sensitive touch to build security and attachment. For example, 95% felt that showing affection to the children in their care is an important part of early years practice. 89% feel that they have a good knowledge of non-statutory safeguarding guidance or advice relevant to their post. 

Despite the positive attitude towards the role of ‘Professional Love’ in early years, practitioners did express some worries about aspects of their work. For example participants may be confident and positive about their practices but they may still worry about how attachment affects their work with 10% of practitioners reporting that they worry about false accusations and how others view the appropriateness of their actions. While participants were very positive about the appropriateness and value of their professionally loving actions, opinion was again mixed on whether or not they would feel comfortable being alone with children. Around 1 in 5 practitioners claimed that they avoid doing so.

Practitioners were asked to describe what they understood by the term ‘Professional Love’ in their own words. There were many and varied views and definitions from the sector. The research team were overwhelmed with the time taken by participants to explain their feelings in such depth. Some definitions were quite broad, often using words such as “care” and “kindness”, or being “available” and paying “attention” to the children. There was some disparity among practitioners when comparing Professional love to Parental with some feeling that their role was like that of a mother with others describing it as not the same bond and that it is different in nature. 

The data gathered from the survey and the subsequent interviews was analysed by the team and used to formulate a toolkit which was made available through the PLEYS website. The project findings were used to co-produce an ‘attachment toolkit' which includes case studies, narratives and video materials to support early years practitioners in their attachment interactions with young children and in their work with families, particularly during times of parent/child separation. The Toolkit identifies three concepts: love; intimacy; and care; which are discussed in depth on the website in video interviews with Dr. Jools Page.

Jools is interested in hearing practitioners’ views on the usefulness of the Toolkit and she offers a selection of questions questions for you to reflect upon: 

  • If love is important, can it/should it be in any way ‘taught’ in our education and training of early years practitioners?
  • Can/should love be ‘criterialised’ i.e., could it ever be legislated or universalised?
  • How could/should Early Childhood Education services be held to account?

Dr Ann Clare is research assistant on the PLEYS project. 

Dr Jools Page is leading the project.

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