Tours and orientations of early learning services are important for both educators and families and can be an emotional and much-anticipated experience. However, conducting tours and orientations during COVID-19 brings a whole new raft of challenges.
This two-part series explores strategies for welcoming new families while keeping everyone safe.
In this article, we focus on orientations.
Life transitions can be challenging, especially for young children who depend on their family’s security and comfort. Orientations can reduce the impact of change for children starting early education for the first time, changing to a new provider, or transitioning between age groups.
Good orientations are still essential throughout the coronavirus pandemic, but how can we conduct a welcoming orientation while managing the risks of visitors attending the service?
We speak with educators and directors at a range of services to provide some suggestions.
Risk management for orientations
It’s important for services to have a COVID risk assessment which outlines hazards, risks, likelihoods and potential control strategies. Your service’s risk assessment may already outline how you deal with managing potential risks such as orientations.
Clare Thompson, early childhood education and care team leader for the City of Greater Geelong, explains that family daycare services are taking extra precautions during orientations as external visitors not only put the educator and the other children at risk, but the educator’s family members too.
Most educators are only allowing one parent in and no other children. At present, that parent must be temperature checked along with their child, be wearing a mask, and keep a social distance from the educator.
Family members may be restricted to a 15-minute stay and asked to remove their shoes. Standard hygiene precautions like hand sanitiser are also in place.
A Sydney-based educator shared how her preschool will conduct orientation days for new children who are enrolled to start next year.
“Children enrolled for 2021 will come in to visit in small groups with only one parent. They will be able to explore the environments as they would for our ‘usual’ practices, but without the current children there as well.
Our cleaner will be conducting a clean just before they arrive and after they leave. Our current hygiene practices will also be implemented, such as increased hand washing, temperature checking and declarations from the parent entering the building.
We will conduct phone calls with the new parents prior to the visit to try and cover off as much as we can in advance so that there is less need for adult conversations on the open day visits. These visits will be all about the new children.”
Providing a sense of security
Belonging is a familiar concept for early childhood educators in Australia. The Early Years Learning Framework explains that ‘experiencing belonging – knowing where and with whom you belong – is integral to human existence’. Changes to orientations during COVID-19 should still support children’s need for belonging.
The Wonderschool in Throsby, ACT, offers multiple orientation sessions, according to the individual child’s needs. This is to enable children to observe positive interactions between educators and their families, so they feel they are with people who are trusted.
Director Susan Foy says, “We spend time talking with the children and their families so we can start to build strong relationships from the beginning. We encourage families to let children explore the environment and be a secure base.
We also talk to families about a morning ritual. We give the families a copy of a script they can use to help for drop-offs, which include the family talking about the educator keeping their child safe and doing a handover from home care to being cared for in the centre.
Transitioning between age groups
COVID-19 has reduced attendance rates and provoked major staffing changes in some instances. Some services have combined age groups and transitioned children to manage ratios. However, orientation periods should be provided before changing any child’s routine. Transition periods support children’s mental wellbeing.
The NSW Department of Education suggest that mixing of staff and children between rooms should be avoided where possible in their guide for early education and care services. They acknowledge that staff may need to move between rooms to support breaks and, in these situations, suggest that staff should be reminded of the importance of hand hygiene.
Further guidance from The NSW Department of Education
The NSW Department of Education recently sent out an email offering some guidance around orientations and visitors to services, which included a link to our Amplify article on service tours from last week.
The Department’s communication states:
Orientation programs may be run at the discretion of individual services following a thorough risk assessment. Consideration should be given to things like the numbers of children attending, requirements for parents/carers to be present, location and vicinity to known hotspots and the overall benefits of conducting in-person orientations. Alternative ways of conducting orientations, for example via zoom meetings, should be considered where the risks of in-person orientations outweigh the benefits. Community of Early Learning Australia has published an article that has some useful tips.
Align your orientation with your goals
At the heart of it, we need to think about the purpose of orientation (our ‘why’) and decide whether any of these can be achieved through ways other than face to face.
Goals may include areas such as:
- For families to meet the educators and staff
- For families to hand in paperwork
- To shine and show families who you are and what you do
- For children to become familiar with a new environment
- For children to meet staff and educators
- For children to have a positive experience at the service with the security of a parent
- For children to create a positive memory of the service they will attend and which can be referred to by parents in the lead up to attending
- For educators to get to know children who are about to come, to begin to understand their story so that they can start to create a place of belonging and inclusion for that child.
For some of these goals (particularly those for children and very young children), face to face cannot be successfully substituted. So it’s vital to plan ahead and agree on how the goals can be achieved in a safe way.
Tips for successful orientations
- Conduct a risk assessment prior to agreeing on your centre’s approach to orientations and ensure that all families and team members are clear on the approach.
- Be flexible and take an individualised approach to children’s orientations (where possible within the current environment).
- Talk with families about their own fears. Parents may be putting on a brave face, but they can have separation anxiety too.
- Allow time for children to bond with new educators. A familiar and welcoming face is comforting during difficult times.
- Schedule orientation visits so children can experience different parts of the service’s routine, including group times, meals and rest time.
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