I have just read a very thought-provoking post over at maternalselves, a blog by two academic mothers. I thought about commenting, but I think I have too much to say.
My daughter, too, goes to nursery so I can work on my PhD. She has been going since she turned 18 months, and it seems to be going ok as far as I can tell (and I find it difficult to tell most of the time). Her nursery also reserves only a week for the settling-in period: on the first day, we both went together to meet her key person who asked about food, milk, and sleeping (she has always fed herself, drinks no cows milk as I still breastfeed her, and is unlikely to nap at nursery as she feeds to sleep, which is fine because she only does half days); on the second day I left my daughter for 15 minutes and she cried the entire time, but was cuddled by her key person for all of it. The third day I left her for 30 minutes and she cried for most of that time, but was calm when I picked her up (I wasn’t sure if she’d just run out of tears). The fourth and fifth day I left her for 45 minutes and an hour, and she seemed fragile, but resigned. At the end of the week, the settling-in process was declared successful, and the key person recommended leaving her for two hours the next time instead of leaving her for a whole session, which was an option I gladly took as it seemed cruel to me to leave her for longer after she had been away from nursery for three days.
Since then she has been very positive about nursery, running excitedly to fetch her shoes when I ask her if we should get ready to go. But sometimes she seems more reluctant to jump into the hubbub of her group, and the extremely informative feedback of “She’s been fine. She’s eaten.” whichI usually receive at the end of her session isn’t really enough to allay my worries that she doesn’t really feel safe there, it’s all a bit much for her and cuddles at home would be much better.
I can’t help but compare my daughter’s nursery with what I know about nurseries in Germany as my oldest friend works in one and is always willing to provide her point of view as an educator. Her nursery, along with many nurseries in Germany, follows the Berliner Modell [Berlin model/scheme], a research-based, carefully worked-out approach to nursery education. Developed by Kuno Beller in the 1980s, the aim of the Berliner Modell is to equip nursery staff with the knowledge and skills to assess a child’s developmental stage and needs, and to offer them activities and challenges based on what they have observed in order to foster the child’s motivation and self-confidence. One of the key ideas is that each child is treated as an individual – there are no pre-determined timeframes and ‘one-size-fits-all’-approaches. A child is frequently offered activities specifically for them, as a sort of ‘intellectual treat’, while the other children do something else.
The scheme is based on extensive scientific observations of nursery children and encompasses all aspects of the nursery experience as well as the interaction between nursery and home. It is a fascinating and extremely child-centric method. However, I would like to give an overview of only one part of it: the settling-in process. Remember my description above of my daughter’s first visits to nursery? If we lived in Germany, it would have gone as follows –
On the first day, we would have met her key person who would have asked a wide variety of questions about our home situation, my daughter’s development and interests as well as any concerns I might have. Then she would have shown us around the room, letting my daughter observe the other children and take in her new surroundings at her own speed, venturing from my lap out into the room when she felt ready. The key person would have gently interacted with my daughter, but only following her lead and taking care not to intimidate her. This would have taken around an hour.
The rest of the week would have passed in a similar fashion, with my daughter and me both getting to know her key person and the other staff and children. This would have enabled my daughter to observe that the other children trusted the staff, and it would have allowed me to feel reassured that she would be well cared for. Through observing how my daughter and I interacted and how I looked after her, i.e. when changing her nappy, the key person would have gained an insight into what made my daughter comfortable and what she was used to in order that my way of looking after her could be replicated. On occasion the key person and I would have performed tasks in parallel, me with my daughter and her with another child so that she could observe my way of doing things and I could learn to trust her.
After becoming more comfortable at nursery, I would have gradually removed myself from my daughter; first by staying out of the way when she was playing, and then by leaving the room for perhaps 5 minutes one day and if everything went well, for longer on the following days.
This process would have taken around four weeks with frequent reviews of our progress and specific tailoring to my daughter’s needs.
I realise that doing things this way at my daughter’s nursery would require a lot more organisation and present quite a burden for the staff. But my friend’s nursery does not have the same rules regarding children:staff ratios as we have in the UK so that she occasionally has to look after up to 11 children between the ages of a few weeks and five years (no, this is not ideal and she is not happy about it) – and she still manages an individual settling-in schedule for each new child.
In conclusion: I really wish that my daughter’s nursery had been (were) more transparent about their didactic approaches so that I could feel reassured that they are aware of everything that matters to parents. I wish that they were more flexible with the settling-in and devised this phase in cooperation with the child’s parents. Because even though my daughter seems fine most days, I still can’t help thinking that sending her to nursery at such a young age, forcing her through the settling-in process, has broken a little part of her.