Early childhood educators should be friendly with their students, but should they ‘love’ them?

A new study from the UK has looked at how close early years workers should – and should not – allow themselves to get.

While the majority of practitioners believe showing affection to the children in their care is important, concerns exist about how others view the appropriateness of their actions.

Dr Jools Page took up the study to explore how a rise in media coverage surrounding sex abuse scandals has had an impact on childcare providers by asking early years professionals for their views on 'professional love' in an anonymous online survey.

“In recent years, a small but growing number of early years practitioners have been convicted of child abuse, and the continued media exposure of abusive clergy and then of various 'celebrity' entertainers has led to a climate of wariness and even suspicion of adults' professional relationships with very young children,” said Dr Page.

“A difficulty for those who work in early years settings is how to express the affectionate and caring behaviours which the role demands of them in their loco parentis, and which very young children need in their development of healthy attachments.”

Dr Page developed the term 'professional love' to try to understand these intimacies, which she says remain unexamined, obscured by a climate of wariness.

The survey was completed by 793 early years professionals, finding the following key points;

  • 95 per cent feel that showing affection to the children in their care was an important part of early years practice
  • 10 per cent said they were worried about false accusations and how others view the appropriateness of their actions
  • Opinion was mixed on whether respondents felt comfortable being alone around the children in their care, with one in five saying they avoid doing so
  • Respondents defined ‘professional love’ in broad terms like ‘care’ and ‘kindness’ or being ‘available’ and paying ‘attention’ to the children
  • Some said ‘professional love’ should be parental in nature – “loving a child as if it's your own” or “acting like a mother”
  • ‘Professional love’ included physical contact like kissing and hugging for some, while other specifically described that displays of affection in general must be initiated by the child
  • 56 per cent said they were not concerned about parents' attitudes to professional love
  • 22 per cent said they feel they are acting in line with what parents want for their children
  • Just 3 per cent feel that parents understand there are clear boundaries or policies in place
  • 10 per cent of practitioners reported concerns over parents feeling threatened, jealous or uncomfortable about early years staff developing a relationship with their children
  • In response to a child saying; ‘I love you’, 47 per cent said they would say; ‘I love you’ back. Others said they would give limited reciprocation by saying something like 'I like you' (20 per cent), say 'that's nice' or 'lovely' (15 per cent) or use diversionary phrasing such as 'I love spending time with you too' (2 per cent). Two per cent said they would explain or explore other relationships by asking questions like 'who else do you love?', a further two per cent said they would respond by saying 'you are all loved' and one per cent said they would give a non-verbal response like a smile or hug

The project findings are being used to produce a set of professional development materials in the form of an ‘Attachment Toolkit’.

More information is available here.