- Describe communication in terms of informing, motivating, coaching, and resolving conflict.
- Identify common barriers to effective communication for leaders.
- Identify active listening strategies and ways to get feedback on your own communication style.
Your ability to communicate effectively with staff is critical to your program’s success. You rely on a large group of people to keep everyone safe, healthy and happy. Formal communication structures, such as new staff orientations, are essential to accomplishing program goals. Informal communication like chatting in the hallway is critical, as well. Informal communication should occur frequently across all staff in order to develop relationships and should occur at appropriate times so that it does not impact program operations. Communicating effectively with staff leads to a team-oriented culture, which increases job performance and satisfaction. You will then see achievement of program goals. Listen as this director shares her strategies for communicating effectively with staff.
Supervise & Support
As you begin thinking about communication with staff members, it can be helpful to think about the reasons you communicate with staff. This lesson is organized around four key reasons for communication: to inform, motivate, coach, and resolve conflict. The lesson concludes with a crucial component of communication: active listening.
Communicating to Inform
The first job of communication is to inform. As a manager, you inform staff members about the policies, procedures, roles, and expectations of the program. This ensures staff members have the information they need to reach your program’s goals. You can think of this as communicating your program’s “non-negotiables.” These might include essential expectations about the importance of safety, timeliness, respect, and responsibility. Example of non-negotiables might be:
- Arrive to work on time
- Dress professionally and/or follow uniform or dress code requirements
- Follow procedures to request shift changes or leave
- Turn in lesson plans weekly
- Maintain an open-door policy for families in your classroom or program areas
- Always follow posted staff-to-child ratios
- Use active supervision strategies at all times
- Complete required trainings (e.g., child abuse and prevention, first aid, etc.)
Make sure that all staff members understand that engaging in unsafe practices, tardiness, excessive absences, and rudeness to colleagues and families are unacceptable in the program. You will need to communicate expectations in multiple ways and at multiple times. For example, your program’s non-negotiables should be communicated in writing in the staff handbook. You cannot stop there, though. You must also use some or all of the following strategies:
- Ensure these expectations are communicated verbally and in writing during new staff orientation.
- Post reminders, when relevant. For example, post a calendar in the staff area that includes deadlines for requesting leave, turning in lesson plans, or completing time sheets.
- Make sure required posters about staff-to-child ratios and maximum group sizes are visible in each classroom or program area.
- Use written communication such as staff newsletters or memos to remind staff members about changes to program policies or deadlines.
- Talk directly with staff members about expectations.
- Be prepared to work with a trainer to develop individualized professional development plans for staff members who are struggling to meet expectations.
Communicating to Motivate
Are you satisfied with staff members who do the minimum and meet basic requirements? The answer is likely, “No.” If everyone in your program did the minimum, it would probably not feel like a very good place for children or staff members. Effective communication can help move you and staff members from “meeting requirements” to “exceeding expectations.” This section will describe how to describe your expectations, how to connect with staff members, and how to recognize excellence.
Going Beyond the Basics
All programs have basic requirements or standard operating procedures that must be communicated to staff. You have the added responsibility of helping staff members understand the additional expectations that make your program great. These expectations set the tone for your program, but they can sometimes seem like unspoken rules. By providing concrete, clear descriptions of your expectations, you set staff members up for success. Let’s consider an example. Your program requires that each infant classroom send home a daily report to families about the child’s meals, diapers, etc. This is a basic expectation that is written into your program’s procedures. If that is the only way staff members communicate with families, though, they are missing the mark. Your job is to help staff members understand what your program values and to help them achieve it.
Remember, some of your staff members might be entering the workforce for the first time, or they might have work experience in fields that are very different from early care and education. It is your job to help staff members know and use the “softer” skills that ensure program excellence. Consider a few examples:
Examples of Basic Expectations
Program Expectations that Go Beyond the Basics
Communicate daily with families of infants and toddlers.
Arrive to work on time.
Complete required trainings.
As you might have noticed, there might be a fine line between basic requirement on the left and the expectation on the right. Sometimes the expectations might seem like common sense. Whether the expectation is simple or complex, though, taking the time to communicate it to staff members will help you create a strong workplace environment. This is not always an easy task. Use the following strategies to ensure program excellence:
- Lead by example. You set the tone for your program and are a role model for staff. If you want staff members to have friendly interactions with families, for example, you must do this, too. When staff members see you greeting families by name in the hallway or sharing a friendly conversation, they learn about your program’s values.
- Make your expectations clear. Let staff know exactly what it means to be successful in the program. For example, at new staff orientation you might tell staff that they must wash their hands each time they enter a classroom. Some leaders add “Smile and say hi” or “Ask ‘How can I help?’” to the list of things to do when entering a classroom.
- Work with your program’s trainer or coach. You share the responsibility for staff members’ success. The trainer or coach brings a unique and important perspective to the program. They know a great deal about staff members’ strengths, needs, and priorities. Take the time to learn about their work. Talk about your shared goals and visions for the program. Make sure you send staff members a consistent message about expectations. Also make sure that you model the kind of confidentiality and privacy practices you want staff members to use. Don’t gossip about staff members or families, and keep your conversations friendly and professional.
Making Connections with Staff Members
How you communicate with staff members is just as important as what you communicate. Watch out for these common communication traps:
- Phrasing statements as questions. Avoid asking questions when you are actually making a statement. For example, say, “It’s time to start the meeting” instead of asking, “Are you all ready to get started?” Also, watch out for ending your statements with an uptick like you are asking a question.
- Apologizing unnecessarily. Effective leaders know how and when to apologize. Consider how a staff member might respond to this statement: “I’m sorry to take you out of the classroom again. I know it’s a hassle to find time for these performance reviews.” Opening a meeting this way sends the message that this meeting might not be worth the staff member’s time. Consider instead this alternative: “Thanks for taking the time out of your classroom today. I appreciate your flexibility.” The second approach sends a confident message and helps the staff member feel positive about her time with you.
- Using conversation fillers. Watch out for phrases like, “um”, “uh”, and “like.” A few of these fillers are natural, but too many can make you sound uninformed or insecure.
As a manager, you also need to think about how you will connect with all staff members. There may be staff members who seem less connected than others. You must work hard to bring these staff members into the community and make sure they feel valued. Consider these strategies for drawing staff members in:
- Spark their excitement about the work: “You are so connected with the children. I always leave your room with so many new ideas.”
- Share your excitement about the work: “The work we do every day has such an impact on families. I’m proud to work with you and all our team.”
- Ask about their preferences: “What’s the best way to communicate with you?”
- Ask about their experiences: “Do the staff bulletin boards communicate information so that you feel in the loop?”
- Ask for their opinion: “I had an idea for reducing congestion in the hallway. What do you think about it?”
- Engage them in problem-solving: “We’ve had three families arrive late this week. What do you think we should do?”
- If you use email to communicate with staff, ask if your messages are reaching them and if these messages help them stay in touch with the team and what is going on in your program.
You create a program where staff members are excited about their performance and feel appreciated in their day-to-day work. There are many ways to recognize staff. The most effective ways are during simple, everyday interactions that help staff feel noticed (Nelson & Schudlich, 2005). Here are a few low-cost or no-cost ways to recognize staff members:
- Acknowledge a staff member to let them know you appreciated something they did for the program. You might say, “Carly, I really appreciated that you offered to open up the facility this morning. You made a big difference for our families…”
- Personally congratulate staff members on accomplishments. For example, you might say, “Congratulations on finishing your modules, Saif. It takes a lot of commitment to finish those up, and I see you using what you learned in class.”
- Gather materials for small goody bags to recognize staff members. A simple paper lunch sack with a note and a tea bag, hot cocoa mix, or snack bag can make a staff member’s day.
- Invite staff to an appreciation lunch or potluck.
- Consider whether you can have a “spotlight on staff” area on your program’s website or social media. Use that space to recognize staff achievements.
- Design a Recognition Board. Post 2-3 staff members’ photos on the board each month, and post nice comments from their co-workers on the board.
- Bring in a small token on Monday and hand it to one staff member with a few kind words letting them know you appreciate them. Ask the staff member to pass it along to another staff member who is deserving of recognition or praise. If the token makes its way around your building by the end of the week, have a small celebration with staff.
- Keep a stack of colorful index cards on your desk. Use the cards to jot quick thank you notes to staff. Set a goal of writing one per day. Better yet, leave a stack of notes in the staff room and encourage them to give notes to one another.
- For staff members who work in extended care or overnight care, consider sending thank you notes to the staff members’ families or children.
- For major accomplishments such as earning degrees or awards, consider putting an acknowledgement in your community newsletter/newspaper or installation newspaper.
Communicating to Coach
As the program manager, one of your key responsibilities is to coach and mentor your staff. This is something everyone needs in their professional careers. You take a coaching approach to management by being intentional about staff development, having staff set goals for their professional growth, observing regularly in the program, and providing staff members with meaningful feedback and opportunities for reflection. This section will provide information about each of these concepts.
Staff development is a collaboration between you, the trainer in your program or trainers from the community, and the staff. Together, you chart a course that meets both your program’s goals and staff’s individual goals. It is important to affirm the priority of training, planning and coaching, by allowing the Training & Curriculum Specialist (T&CS) adequate time and resources to complete training with staff. Though training is primarily the responsibility of the program’s trainer, as the manager, you have the important responsibility of reviewing staff performance and competence to ensure all job standards are met. Here are some strategies for getting the most out of your staff development:
- Review professional development plans with T&CS and staff members during their orientation process. Work with staff to identify short- and long-term goals. A natural time to update professional development plans is during your program’s evaluation cycle.
- Make sure your program uses a system for tracking staff members’ progress completing required trainings and completing steps on their identified goals.
- Communicate the expectation that the purpose of staff development is not to “earn hours” and meet basic requirements, rather, to incorporate what has been learned into daily practice. Encourage staff and coaches to work together to take the learning from professional development and implement in the classroom.
- Provide specific praise for a job well done. Provide objective feedback instead of general impressions about performance. Provide constructive feedback for areas of improvement.
- Acknowledge professional-development accomplishments. All achievements are worthy of recognition.
Observing in the Program: Management by Moving Around the Program
The most effective managers are highly visible, approachable, and engaged in the program. This is hard to do from behind a desk! Your goal should be to strike a balance between desk-work and more active involvement in your program. Management by Walking Around is a strategy that emphasizes daily conversations and check-ins with staff members. It lets you feel connected and gives you a deep knowledge of your program and your staff. Consider these six tips (Fisher, 2012):
- Write time on your schedule for walking around and dropping in on classrooms, program areas, and staff spaces. This should be a different time each day, so you catch a variety of experiences.
- Walk around alone. This isn’t the time to team up with the trainer; staff might be intimidated by groups of people walking into the classroom.
- Visit everybody. Be sure that you spend roughly equal amounts of time in each classroom or program area.
- Ask questions. “What would make this work better for you?”, “What would make this process easier?”, “What would help you?” Use what you learn.
- Answer questions. If staff members ask you a question, be sure to answer immediately or provide a quick follow-up.
- Save feedback for later. While walking around, you are simply gathering information about your program. Obviously, if there is a health or safety issue, you need to address it right away, but for less serious issues wait to discuss it with staff members at another time. You don’t want staff to feel like you are criticizing or spying. Consider this a time to learn.
As you are walking around the program and informally observing, you can learn valuable information about the staff that you supervise and the operations of the program. Greet each staff member and make yourself visible in each classroom and space in the program. Observe and take note of each staff members’ overall demeanor and engagement with children and families. Is their attitude positive and friendly? Are they interacting on the children’s level? Are they implementing activities appropriately? Do they seem stressed or overwhelmed? Is the program running smoothly or do the staff need something from you to make the classroom or program operate more effectively?
In addition to the informal observations that you perform while walking around the program, you should also plan for more formal, planned observations of staff members. As you observe staff members, keep in mind the following observational practices which can help you gather rich information on staff members’ daily practices and job performance:
- Be aware of your own biases, especially things that may influence your objectivity and take steps to decrease the risk of potential biases. For example, reduce stress by tending to your own well-being as feelings of stress my influence objectivity or write down exactly what you see at that moment and not making interpretations based on past experiences.
- Focus your observation on specific practices (responsive interactions with children, timeliness, dress, welcoming interactions with families) and observe for many sustained minutes.
- Know the key actions, practices, and behaviors that you expect to see or are looking for.
- As you observe, take detailed, objective notes about what you see and hear so that you can thoroughly review them before making evaluation decisions.
Providing Feedback to Staff Members about their Work and Caregiving Practices
Providing feedback to staff members is one of the essential elements of your job. Feedback is how staff members grow professionally and learn new skills or strategies. When provided skillfully and within reflective supervision, staff members value and appreciate receiving feedback. There are two types of feedback you should know about: supportive and constructive. Supportive feedback is also known as positive feedback. It encourages and recognizes staff members for the work they have done and the strategies they have used. Constructive feedback is focused on building new skills and identifying ways to continue to grow professionally. Both types of feedback are equally important. Here are some examples of supportive and constructive feedback:
- “You welcomed Mrs. Russel so warmly this morning. You used her name and thanked her for volunteering last week. I’m glad to see your relationship is developing.”
- “When David refused to line up, you stayed calm. You used all the strategies from your plan, and he eventually got in line with his friends.”
- “You collaborated really well with our community partners planning the spring school-age field day. All your efforts paid off.”
- “Next time, you might try giving David a personal warning before it’s time to line up.”
- “What do you think would happen if we changed the way children drop off their backpacks in the pre-teen center?”
- “I saw your classroom rules are posted and you reminded the children of them during circle time. Remember to remind the children of the rules before they go into the hallway too.”
Communicating through Conflict
Conflict is a natural part of any workplace. Communication can either eliminate or escalate conflict.
By acknowledging the fact that everyone manages conflict differently, you can adapt your communication style to approach and resolve conflict in the best way possible when it arises. It is important to note that, similar to communication styles, no one has just one style or one approach to handling conflict. While people tend to have a dominant style or approach, they may utilize other strategies depending on the situation.
You and the T&CS in your program should use your individual strengths and relationships with staff and each other to help resolve conflict. Often one leader will have developed a stronger relationship with a particular staff member. Use these strong relationships as a tool to help engage and problem solve to find solutions that are beneficial and align with program policies and goals.
Here are some common approaches to conflict that you may encounter:
Collaborating – This approach involves working with everyone involved to find a win-win solution. A collaborating approach may sound like this: “Let’s spend the time to get to the best solution for everyone.”
Compromising – This approach involves looking for a quick solution that partially satisfies both parties. A compromising approach may sound like this: “While it’s not the ideal solution, at least we all got a little of what we wanted.”
Forcing – This approach involves pursuing your own concern despite the resistance of another person. A forcing approach may sound like this: “I will win this argument no matter what.”
Avoiding – This approach involves sidestepping the concern. An avoiding approach may sound like this: “It’s not a big problem, why worry?” or, "Let's talk about this later" and not coming back to the issue.
Accommodating – This approach involves accommodating the concerns of other people rather than your own. An accommodating approach may sound like this: “Fine, I give up, whatever it takes to end this conflict.”
Some of these approaches lend themselves to successful teamwork more than others. For example, an individual who takes a forcing approach does not really resolve conflict; they simply overpower those who disagree with them. This approach will eventually result in additional conflict and job dissatisfaction. Similarly, the accommodating approach may leave parties feeling dissatisfied or patronized. No one may feel like a real solution was reached.
Consider using the strategies below for managing and resolving conflict at your program:
- Use reflective supervision. Regularly schedule time to listen to the staff. By allowing staff members to vent or share their feelings with you, they are less likely to do so inappropriately.
- Don’t beat around the bush or hide behind memos. An avoidant conflict-management style can lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
- Go right to the source of the conflict and address it directly. It doesn’t take long for a conflict to get out of control and impact your entire staff.
- Rumors are often the result of a lack of information or a different perception of a situation. Staff want to stay well informed, so practice being transparent in sharing information when it’s appropriate.
- Use staff meetings to share and discuss upcoming changes, making sure that everyone hears of the change at the same time. No one likes to feel like they are left out or intentionally not told something.
- Recognize that everyone has hot buttons, and if they are not acknowledged, they can derail any relationships, including within program leadership, in classroom teaching teams, and among staff. You can think more about hot buttons in the Apply section.
When it comes to having difficult conversations with each other, program managers and T&CS need to have a clear plan for how these conversations will be handled respectfully. Productive conflict can be an effective tool to handle disagreements that the Leadership Team will encounter. Productive conflict is defined as “an open exchange of conflicting or differing ideas in which parties feel equally heard, respected, and unafraid to voice dissenting opinions for the purpose of reaching a mutually comfortable resolution.” (Valentine, 2018). Leadership does not have to agree on everything but should be willing to hear each other, respect each other’s ideas or opinions and collaboratively plan how to move forward together keeping the shared mission and vision in mind. Here are some strategies to keep in mind when you face disagreements with your T&CS:
Identify the common ground. What are you trying to accomplish? What is the big picture? Remember your mission and the shared vision for the program. Keep in mind the ideas that you agree on as you are working through tough situations.
Ask questions. Ask questions for understanding when you are strategizing together on how to handle a problem. This also shows your respect for your fellow leader and their ideas. Sometimes you can use questions to start conversations or broach difficult topics. For example: “I was wondering if you have noticed...? Is there something we should be aware of...? or How can I help you with...?”
Active listening. Active listening involves paying full attention to what the other person says and letting them know you understood their message. Remember active listening is verbal and non-verbal and often involves repeating what you heard the speaker say.
Show empathy. Showing empathy involves your willingness to accept another person’s experiences and feelings. You might disagree but can still be empathetic to another person’s point of view and recognize the value in another’s opinion.
The Role of Listening
Active listening is a cornerstone of communication. To truly understand an individual, you have to listen. These are some strategies for active listening, according to Families, Professionals, and Exceptionality: Positive Outcomes Through Partnerships and Trust (Turnbull et al., 2010):
- Furthering responses. These are the simple ways you let people know you are listening. Furthering responses include nodding your head, saying “uh huh” or “what happened next?” and using the speaker’s words in brief encouraging statements.
- Restating the speaker’s message. This is also known as paraphrasing. You might say, “Let me see if I understand correctly” and repeat what you heard in your own words.
- Reflecting the emotions of the speaker. An important part of communication is reading the emotions of others. You can show staff members you are listening and connecting with them by reflecting those emotions back to them. Simple phrases like, “I can tell that really upset you” or “I bet that was really disappointing” can encourage the speaker to continue sharing.
- Asking open-ended questions. “What?” and “How?” questions are powerful, nonjudgmental ways to help staff members communicate with you. They show you are engaged and actively listening. They also show that you want to hear the other person’s opinions. You might ask, “What happened with Sasha’s plan yesterday?” or “How is Davon doing with his asthma?”
- Summarizing the discussion. Any great conversation should end with a summary and a plan. You might say, “So I heard you say …. Let’s review our next steps.”
Gathering Information on Your Own Performance
Effective managers don’t just give feedback—they receive it, as well. CEOs and managers of large corporations often participate in what is known as a “360 Feedback Review.” This means their work is examined from all angles: staff members are interviewed about the supervisor, data about the business is reviewed, and the CEO prepares a statement about their goals and progress as a leader. While you might not go to this level of review, it’s an important concept to try to use in your work. How are you nurturing your leadership skills? How are you helping your program achieve its goals? What are your weaknesses and how are you working on them? How are you asking staff members for feedback about your work? Have you created a safe place for staff members to ask questions? Take time regularly to seek out information from staff members about their job satisfaction and their needs.
Managing a child care and youth program can be challenging. You are constantly in a state of balancing the needs and wants of families, staff, children and youth. When you respect staff members and communicate effectively with them, you will spend less of your time resolving conflict and more of your time achieving program goals.
It can be helpful for you to reflect on how to prepare for and engage staff members in meaningful conversations. These conversations become even more important when there is conflict, disagreement, or tension between you and/or staff members. When you are concerned or nervous about a conversation, use the Preparing for Conversations Guide as a tool to help you plan ahead. Review the questions to help you think deeply with staff members about the problem and the roles of everyone in mind. You can use these questions to guide a discussion with staff members, or complete the questions in advance of a discussion.
We all have hot buttons, behaviors that drive us crazy. When we are not aware of our hot buttons or able to communicate them, they can become sources of conflict. Here are some common hot buttons that staff members who work together might experience:
- Different expectations for children
- Differences in organization and cleanliness expectations
- Supervision of children
- Different communication styles
- Different planning expectations
- Different ideas about environmental set-up
- Tardiness or absences of coworkers
Print and use the Hot Button Activity to lead reflection and discussion between staff members. This activity can be done before conflicts arise to help staff clarify expectations and be aware of each other’s hot buttons. This can be a nice complement to the preparation you did in the Explore activity.
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