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Key person approach – past, present and future!

A few months ago I was contacted by a lady via social media: ‘Are you the Laura that worked in a nursery in North London, in the 80s/90s?’ Included was a picture of two children in carnival costumes.

I immediately recognised the children, who were twins, brother and sister. I was their key person!


Mum and I spoke on the phone. The first thing she said to me was: ‘Laura, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking care of and looking after my children.’ Well, the tears started to roll down my face.

Mum recalled how delighted she was when she saw her two children perform in the Christmas concert I put on. Fast forward to the present day: the boy is a budding actor while the girl works with children.

Mum was a single parent to twins and studying for a degree at the same time. We all know that studying is hard at the best of times, much more so with two under-fives! I remember having long chats with Mum about a number of issues.

Taking these ‘two children’ under my wings, we would go on trips, canal boat rides, fruit picking, to the zoo and so much more, with fun being central to teaching and learning.

“Kids don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” ~ Jim Henson

Mum was surprised that I remembered her name and the children’s names. Well, they were my key children, after all!

In this particular nursery the approach was ‘family grouping’. Therefore, I was able to build a personal, sustained relationship over a period of time, with all of my key children and their families. I have previously spoken about another key child at this setting.

At ‘Nelly’s Nursery’ in London they embrace the family grouping concept, their way is birth to two and two to five. They do not assign a new member of staff as a key person until the member of staff has passed their three month probationary period. They have an effective secondary key person system as well. In addition, on a daily basis, children have ‘special’ times in small, personal groups with their key person.

Elinor Goldschmied spoke extensively about the Key Person approach. I believe we have so much more work to do on this because it matters to young children’s development within Early Years settings. At times I do hear Educators using the term ‘key worker’, I have even seen displays with this on. I know they are probably referring to the key person approach. I then ask reflective questions, to ascertain if they do mean the key person approach.

As Peter Elfer et al so rightly emphasize: ‘The key person is someone in the Early Years setting who has real, daily meaning and emotional significance to the child and his family’. Dr Jools Page passionately talks about ‘professional love’ within Early Years settings. I love this concept as I do believe that ‘love’ needs to be discussed at a professional level with Educators, children and parents.

The ‘Building Blocks’ nurseries starts the key person relationship early, with the key person carrying out home visits and taking the child out on local trips.

Note that the key person is the named individual within a school environment as well; childminders are automatically the child’s key person.

I believe the key person approach, within an Early Years setting, forms part of the emotional culture of the setting. This behaviour is mirrored by the Educators with each other, as well as with the children and parents.

On a recent visit to Nelly’s, I had a discussion with a parent: her child was new to the nursery. She was full of praise and said that her child made friends on his first day. One child showed him the ropes and became his key person! I smiled, as I knew what she meant. The emotional culture within Nelly’s is one where the children nurture each other.

As he was new, I wanted to see how his key person had started to track his learning and development, identifying his starting points. (Quietly goes into Ofsted mode.) I had a discussion with his key person who showed me his ‘learning journey’.

On the first page was this photograph of the two children.

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Well I didn’t have to read or say anymore, as this image spoke volumes.

“Only those who look with the eyes of children can lose themselves in the object of their wonder”  ~ Eberhard Arnold

 Further reading.

Key Persons in the Early Years: Building relationships for quality provision in early years settings and primary schools – Peter Elfer, Elinor Goldschmied and Dorothy Y. Selleck

Working with Babies and Children: From Birth to Three – Jools Page, Cathy Nutbrown and Ann Clare

A to Z of Inspiring Early Years Paragraphs – Laura Henry

Blog on personal relationships

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  • Sarah Hill

    Thanks Laura for such a helpful and insightful blog. We like to think our approach works well but as for all things, always keen to learn and further improve. Which is of course where you come in!

    • Laura Henry

      No, thank you and the parents for allowing me to share the story and the photograph! You are doing a fantastic job! Hoping to start the professional development days soon, to share the great work that you do with children and families. Your staff team are dedicated and passionate!

  • sue williams

    Hi Laura
    This comment has come at such a “Key” time for me following some recent training i delivered and some teaching i am currently doing. Not only have i found the term Key Worker being used, like you, when you start to unpick this role, it really is, in many cases the historic role of the Key Worker regarding record keeping and planning. There is still a huge gap in practitioners understanding of this crutial role and Dr Jools Page’s “Professional Love” is such a “Key” part in my discussions when we share the deep and meaningful role of the Key Worker.

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