A place of belonging – Building a positive culture within the ECEC workplace
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Sector.
Building a sense of belonging within an early childhood education and care (ECEC) service is more than a thing educators “have to” do. Of course, all educators know that one of the core components to the Early Years Learning Framework and the Framework for School Age Care is belonging – one of those three wonderful “b” words that outline the work we do with children and families every single day – but what does a sense of community look like, beyond being a requirement for meeting our obligations under the approved learning frameworks?
Is it just about building a sense of belonging for the children? Is it what magically happens when you start inviting parents to interact with your programs? Is it the outcome of collaboration between employees within your workplace? Maybe it’s about other stakeholders involved in your service?
Spoiler alert – it’s all these things and more! Given that true change always begins from within, for this article I have focused mainly on the educator working environment and how, without a positive community culture between employers and employees, educators will be challenged to model a sense of belonging and develop a community for the children they care for. After all, how can we create environments for children to be, belong and become if we don’t feel like we belong ourselves?
Establishing a positive community culture
As individuals with different beliefs, perspectives and lived experiences, working within different sites and contexts around Australia, there is no one way of building a positive community culture within the workplace which will work for all. There are, however, fundamentals which should be considered when establishing positive community cultures within the early childhood education environment. Let’s look at just four of these concepts, in no particular order, and unpack them further.
For me, this is a ‘no-brainer’ for a couple of reasons. Although the tasks we perform in the course of our daily work are no small feat, we are caring for children, and so we need to be able to tap into our own child-like qualities and have serious fun! For some of us, having fun and being playful is something which comes naturally, while for others, it can be a challenge.
Fun is a core component of building a solid community, and it starts from the top. If the leaders in a service are able to smile, laugh, share a funny story or two, play with children, dance in the rain, skip down the hallway, basically be playful and enjoy themselves then this will most likely filter across to educators who feel comfortable enough to join in with this sense of fun. Leaders who lead and manage with space to be fun and playful set a precedence that it’s ok to enjoy yourself by having a little bit of fun.
Just like glitter, fun is contagious and hard to get rid of, and more often than not, as more confident educators display these qualities and regularly have fun, a feeling of fun will eventually become part of the everyday rhythm and climate of a service.
When fun filters through the environment, it brings an uplift in mood and happiness. While fun is fun, it also boosts the health and wellbeing of educators and increases a sense of social connection.
Belonging is a foundational and fundamental human need. Maslow ranked love and belonging just above basic human needs such as safety and shelter. Every one of us needs to have a sense of love and belonging in order to survive and thrive.
Within a working environment, relationships with others are paramount in fulfilling a desire to belong. Baumeister and Leary believed that there were two criteria in regards to fulfilling the need to belong. The first was that people needed frequent, meaningful relationships with at least a few others, and secondly, there should be long lasting concern for each others welfare.
We can never get a re-creation of community and heal our society without giving our citizens a sense of belonging.
By creating a workplace that supports social interactions, leaders and managers acknowledge the need of every person, regardless of age and circumstance, to belong.
We can’t practice, or feel a genuine sense of belonging, in a place where we are in fear of someone being cruel. In order to belong, we need to be in a place of kindness, where mistakes are worked through, and intentions are genuine and good.
Genuine kindness is something which comes from the heart, and sits alongside empathy and compassion. Kindness becomes inherent when it is modelled by influential people. Perhaps in your own life, your parents, teachers and friends modelled kindness toward you? Of course, there are people who are born naturally kind but kindness usually evolves with things like your lived experiences, maturity and understanding to treat everyone as equals.
First and foremost, we need to be the adults we want our children to be. We should watch our own gossiping and anger. We should model the kindness we want to see.
Like fun, kindness is contagious, and if there are many people in a workplace who are reflecting and practicing the quality of kindness, there is a flow on effect.
Can you imagine for a moment, what it would be like if everyone genuinely cared about each other? Although there will always be people who don’t like one another there is always an opportunity to put aside any negative feelings to just be kind.
Respect is easily defined when we pare it right back. I use the following concept with my preschool yoga programs to define respect around three guidelines:
- respect for yourself,
- respect for others and
- respect for the environment (equipment, spaces, furniture, plants etc)
When it comes to relationships and belonging, respect is integral. Once we know and understand what respectful interactions look like, it becomes easier to practice, and to model to others.
The simple adage of “treat others as you wish to be treated” sits as a cornerstone of respect.
Educators who speak to one another with sarcasm can be called on this using language of respect (“When you speak to me that way, I feel disrespected”). When an educator feels they have not been heard by a leader, the language of respect can be used to get this “back on track” (‘I know that you just had a hard time with that person but I feel disrespected when you don’t acknowledge me’.)
Using the language of respectfulness to discuss feelings, or the treatment of people, objects and the environment can be a beneficial way to demonstrate to others how respect looks, sounds, and feels.
By doing so, a space and culture is created by informed people who understand the importance of respect, and its role in making a harmonious space.
The importance of a positive community
Embedding a sense of belonging within the workplace is important not only for the health and wellbeing benefits it brings, but also in terms of employee retention. With well publicised workforce challenges, gaining and retaining qualified staff is more challenging than in previous times.
An educator who feels respected, connected and is shown kindness is one who is more likely to stay in their role. If the service as a whole works to continuously create and maintain a happy, harmonious environment, why would the staff team seek to be anywhere else?
When educators and leaders feel like they are part of a team with deep and meaningful connections, they look forward to seeing their co-workers in the same way one looks forward to seeing an old friend. When families and children see the positive relationships between educators and leaders, they too feel a sense of belonging, and feel comfortable and safe leaving their children in care.
Nic would love to hear from readers about what makes your workplace a positive community.
Strong communities are the foundations of Nic’s two yoga programs – Yoga Play for kindergartens and Earth Mother Yoga for mums and children. Join Nic’s community by liking South East Yoga & Wellbeing Facebook page and sign up for the monthly newsletter at [email protected] for a free pdf on Calming Bedtime Routines.