All by myself…..unless I want to collaborate!

I work for myself and I love the freedom this gives me. I love making all of the decisions, I love doing the preparation in my own time and in my own way, I love delivering the topics I choose, I even like, a bit, creating invoices and tracking my accounts. Working for myself is one of the best career decisions I’ve ever made and mostly, the independence and solitary working day really suits me. However, spending a lot of time in my own head can be exhausting and, if I’m honest, lonely sometimes.

I’d looked at local networking events and was put off, not least because they always seem so formal and impersonal (they all seem to charge loads too). Plus, I didn’t know anyone so I’d have to go alone….and then what?!?! Me in my Docs and jeans telling people wearing suits what I do and hoping one other person in the room might do something similar or just work in the same field. It didn’t feel right for me and as I’m the boss, I made the decision to not ‘network’.

I did still feel the need to collaborate, though I had no idea of how to get started, and for some reason, I did not expect it to happen when I went along to the Nursery World Show in London earlier this year. The best I had hoped for was a few free pens and perhaps another large equipment supplier to offer a few free resources in exchange for a blog post (this has previously happened!!)

I think this might be why it went so well. I was relaxed, confident and had no expectations, so when I spoke with biz owners, that came across.

I came away with a stack of business cards and several have led to collaborations, in a variety of ways. I’m not going to give anything away about these yet, that’ll come later.

The thing about working with others (rather than for them), is that you get broader perspectives on your ideas, and on your goals. You get to share the load, try out ideas, and reflect together. You get a critical friend, someone who can push and challenge you and someone who can inspire you.

In every job I’ve had, I’ve sought out the person (or when I’m lucky, people) who I respected to be that collaborator. I’ve been choosey, and rightly so, it’s paid off, as many are still friends (not just on social media).

So, who are you collaborating with? Who can you share your crazy ideas with? Who’ll give you an honest response? Who will join you in turning that madcap idea into reality? Who will cheerlead from the side? Who do you do those things for?

It’s not just about being mates, it’s much more than that but it has to start with respect. Mutual respect, for each other as people and as professionals.

I’m going to add that I’ve found some of these things online too, amongst 2 or 3 incredibly supportive biz groups in Facebook, but they took a while to find and a while to feel the benefit, as with all relationships, you have to build trust and rapport. So, don’t be disheartened if you haven’t found your collaborator yet….they’re there, waiting to be found!

Also, I’ve been to a networking event….more on that another time 😉


Waving My Arms Around: How Conducting Helped Me See the Value in Setting Challenges.

Conducting the windband last weekend brought to mind memories of when I first worked in early years; and didn’t really know what I was doing.

I stood at the front, waving my arms in the air, trying to get the attention of the flautists, clarinetists and trumpeters while they looked the other way and played their own thing. I moved around the stage and made myself bigger, making more exaggerated arm movements and still the cornet players and drummer did not look up. Each and every player was in their own world, following the music, counting the beat, tapping their feet to the rhythm and remembering how to make the next note with their instrument. I conducted the music, not the band and its many players.

They sounded amazing, by the way!

OK, so that’s not like early years, but hopefully it got you to read this far. The thing it reminded me of was that you can’t ‘conduct’ young children, they play in their own world; and I can’t (yet) conduct the windband.

The role the early years practitioner is not to conduct, or instruct, or to direct. In fact, a certain ‘office for standards in education’ tells us we teach. The definition of teaching is much broader than those outside of early years might imagine though and to conduct is more than waving your arms around (turns out, it’s much more!)

As I developed my skills within the early years I came to see my role more as a facilitator than a teacher, turns out that is a form of teaching. The skill of creating an enabling environment for the children takes some of us years to get right and lots of trial and error. Putting not enough or too many resources out, setting up invitations to play, or deconstructed role play areas, leaving doors open, closing doors, separating areas off, leaving everywhere open plan, the list goes on, but once we’ve tried out all of those the thing we know for certain is that some of these will work some of the time. And, this is just the beginning!!!

You’ve created the ‘ever changing’ enabling environment but now what? How else do we ‘teach’ in the early years?

One of the ways of teaching I particularly enjoyed is through setting challenges for the children. Across the EYFS children need and thrive on challenge.

Take a moment to think about the challenges you have set in the past week.

When I raised this point in a training recently the practitioners in the room instantly discussed physical challenges; for me they can be some of the least interesting (not least important) challenges that we set for children.

The ones I find most interesting and those which require creative and critical thinking; the how can we…the what might happen if…the what else. They are open-ended and focus on the process of the challenge. They allow a child to come up with their own ideas, make predictions and problem solve. Watching children work through this type of challenge is exciting and hugely rewarding. We sometimes work alongside them, modelling the process or providing a narrative, we demonstrate an element or suggestion and we certainly do lots of cheerleading. The importance through the challenge setting process of ‘praise for doing’ should not be underestimated; children need to know we’re on their side, supporting them and value them.

It has been said that playing a musical instrument is great for one’s cognition, memory and creative skill development so to improve my skill of conducting I need to tap into that and facilitate, set challenges and most of all praise and encourage the players in the band.


What challenges might help these children to think critically?

When do you play?

As a practitioner in the Early Years sector you know a lot about play and spend your time at work observing children at play. You notice when they are absorbed in the action of digging in the flower beds or leading cars around the floor. You listen intently as they tell you about their adventures into the woods or about the latest episode of the infamous family of pigs. You engage in their water play and add props to their construction. You skillfully support the  process of learning and deftly write observations to evidence the presence of the characteristics of effective learning.


My question to you though is, when do you play?

When Trivial Pursuit comes out with the family do you sit back and prefer to watch the action, or are you so engaged in the game you don’t notice you’ve been there for 3 hours, or are you the one who bends the rules to make sure you win? It’s OK, it’s just a game, isn’t it?

What about when you go out for a walk in the countryside – do you get your head down and count the miles, race to the ‘top’ and savour the view, or are you the one at the back, stopping, examining, smelling the flowers. You might be appointed as the photographer to capture the walk for posterity or the selfie queen, snapping images of yourself at every stopping point.

The point is, we all absorb the world around us differently and if we pause and notice how we do this it can have an impact on the way we notice it in others, especially children.

Children play to learn, we need to learn to play.

Book me for a training session on the Characteristics of Effective Learning and you get to play and through play, you’ll develop your learning of how children learn.



Reflective Practice – What Next?

So, last time I wrote about reflective practice and told you about one of my favourite strategies, reflective lenses, to get the most out of this process but what do you do when you’ve done all of this reflection?

The best kind of reflective practice leads to some development of your practice, of those around you and of the setting in which you work. In order for reflection to lead to these changes you need an action plan (and then to take action).

Once, you’ve reflected through lenses (even if you didn’t get to all 4) and you’ve noted some things you’d like to change, stop doing, do more of or try out. Make sure you create a list of these. If it helps, order the list.

You can do this in a number of ways: priority order i.e. how urgently that change needs to happen, impact order i.e. which things will have the biggest impact (on you, the children, your colleagues, the parents), or quick wins followed by longer term goals. What actions can you take immediately that will have an impact and what needs more time for planning, funding and collaboration?

Once you have that list, you need to create your action list, you should consider using SMART as basis for this. Have you come across this before? Likely you have but I’ll give you a quick reminder anyway.

S – is your action specific?

M – can I measure when I’ve met my action?

A – is it possible for me to achieve this?

R – is it a realistic action?

T – have I set a time frame for this action?

Here’s an imagined example: I noticed that I always take a ‘step back’ and let colleagues lead the singing sessions with groups of children. I know it’s down to my lack of confidence and notice my colleagues are happy to lead it so I don’t have to.

I want to take a lead with the group singing sessions and build my confidence.

My action could be written like this – I will lead a group singing session by the end of April 2018

Now, this won’t happen immediately and you will want to build up to this with support from your colleagues. You need to tell them you want to do this, you need to ask for their help and you need to break it down into baby steps.  

During the next singing session – lead one song – an old favourite such as ‘Roly, Poly’ and then ask for feedback from one person who was part of the singing.

Next, time, maybe lead 2 or 3 songs….after that, try out a less familiar one, before you know it, you’ll confidently be leading singing and helping a less confident colleague to try it!

So, reflect, plan, do and then, reflect again.   

The Reflective Practitioner – Learning Through a Lens


The reflective practitioner is a force to be reckoned with! Seriously. Is that you?

The power of reflecting on your practice is easily underestimated but it is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal; it is also one of the cheapest!

What is reflective practice?

You know how when you are working you notice what the children do, how they do it, what they say and how they say it? Have you looked at yourself in this way? It might not feel as easy because it’s not something we are used to but it is possible and, importantly, powerful.

When observing children you are aware of the skills they demonstrate, the words they use and the focus they give to their play, what skills are you using to support those children? What words do you use and how focused are you on that situation?

Is everything you have done today, yesterday, last week, been completed to the best of your ability? Be critical, what didn’t get your attention? What skills did you underuse? What communication was ineffective?

Got something? Good – we learn so much by noticing the areas we need to develop.

‘So, is that it then Fiona, just notice stuff?’ Nope, there are some tools that can really help you and make a difference to the way you reflect and the impact this reflection will have on your practice. I’m going to share one with you for now….ready?

Reflective Lenses

This is my personal favourite. It enables me to see how I do things from the perspective of those around me, not just how I see it.

Stephen Brookfield identified this approach fairly recently (2005) but it has been adopted by many in the education field as a useful tool. I’ve broken it down for you and made it relevant to you.

The idea is to look at your practice from different viewpoints to help you to see yourself in the way others might.

Lens one – your own viewpoint – how did you do there? What worked? What didn’t work? Why? How can you improve what you did in the future?

Lens two – The children’s viewpoint – how did they experience your input? How did they respond to your words? How did they react to your involvement in their play?

Lens three – Your colleagues viewpoint – how did they see what you did? How did they respond? Did they comment on what you did? Would they have learnt something from you?

Lens four – The early years approach* you use – how does what you did fit with this approach? Is it a good fit or could you do more to work more closely to this approach?

You can write your reflections down, I find that really useful, but even thinking it through in your head, alone, or something that takes a bit of courage, discuss it with a friend or colleague. Make sure if you do this, you listen to their viewpoint carefully – this can give you real insight.

Why bother?

If this sounds like a lot of work believe me when I say it is not! More importantly, time spent reflecting is never time wasted; you will always learn something about yourself.

As well as learning about you, if you try out the things you discover, your colleagues and children will really thank you. The benefits to those around you will be huge and this includes when something doesn’t work!

So, what now?

Have a go! Really, just try it, take 2 minutes and think about what you did really well today; it feels good doesn’t it?

Oh, and don’t just do it once, keep doing it because, as with any skill, you have to practice to get good at it!

I’m off to reflect on this blog post now….

*By approach I mean the ethos of the setting you work in, the curriculum you follow, the underpinning theory to your practice. E.g. ‘In the Moment Planning, Montessori, Play-based, child-led, etc

Further reading:

Working with Children Learning English as an Additional Language (EAL)

My first experience of working with a child learning English as an Additional Language (EAL) was a lively, feisty 3 year old with an Italian family; I adored working with her and loved observing her emerging language skills. There were frequent moments, when out of frustration she’d punctuate an English sentence with an Italian word or phrase and then be further frustrated by not being understood. Except, of course we did understand. We learnt her mannerisms, her facial expressions, her sounds of anguish, horror, joy and excitement, just as we did with the other children in the room. During the 18 months I worked with her, she developed a wide vocabulary (in both languages) and was easily ‘school’ ready when she left us to start the next part of her learning journey. She’s probably just graduating from university this summer!

Since then, I have worked with many children and young people learning EAL, some take to English as swiftly and naturally as the child in my first encounter, but some struggled and found it more difficult. Of course, that made the job more challenging and all the more rewarding when the child successfully grasped English.

So, what is the secret to supporting these children? My honest answer: there is no secret, no magic wand, no perfect answer. Of course, you know that because you work with children and there is rarely one perfect answer to anything! However, there are some things that do help to move the setting in the right direction. (These are good practice for working with all children, you’ll know that too)

Patience is key to supporting children learning EAL, waiting, listening with every sense and waiting some more. Allowing children time to get out the words, actions, sounds that tell us so much about them. Gentle smiles, nods and strong eye contact help to reassure the child they can take this time. What is the rush?

Building relationships with the child and their family will support all aspects of the child’s well-being but especially the communication as a good relationship will be built on trust and security, once a child feels secure, they flourish!

All staff modelling effective communication in all interactions throughout the setting is an obvious one but children need to see adults having meaningful conversations, hear varied vocabulary and be involved in these interactions. Also, if we are all working together we can support the child learning EAL better too.

Resources that promote interest, build links with a child’s own experience and engage children are much more likely to provide opportunities for children to talk and listen to each other.

So, you see, no magic answer there….just solid good practice which benefits all children. Buona fortuna.

A fun update: last month, whilst door-knocking for democracy, I chanced upon the mother of the aforementioned bilingual child. I instantly recognised her and after dealing with the purpose of my visit I felt compelled to remind her of who I was. Before I had finished she exclaimed “Fiona, we all remember you, of course, and still talk about how Francesca helped to feed the fishes with you!” I asked how she was doing and got the thrilling response that she is currently studying a dual-language degree here in Oxford, meaning she has added a third language (at least) to her skills. We parted with a hug, like old friends and as I wonder around this lovely city I hope that one day I may spot Francesca to greet her too.