Does the implementation of the Key person role in Nursery support the develop of children’s PSED skills?

By Mandy Kitchener


This study was carried out in a Nursery in an East London Primary School in a 78 place nursery (38 morning and 38 afternoon children) with a high level of mobility. The aim of the study was to assess the effectiveness of the Key person role in developing Nursery children’s skills in the three strands of PSED (Personal, Social, Emotional development). The children were split between three Key person’s and one teacher. Activities were planned and delivered by both the Key Persons and the teacher and specific times were given to allow for this relationship to be established.

The study’s aim was to see if children who given the opportunity to form a positive and strong relationship with a Key person are able to make accelerated progress in the three PSED areas. The role of the Key person had previously not been been implemented within the Nursery and data had shown that the area of PSED was an area for development within the Nursery and Reception classes.

Context of the school:

This school is larger than the average-sized primary school with children aged 3 to 11 years old. The proportion of pupils eligible for the pupil premium, which provides additional funding for children in the care of the local authority, pupils known to be eligible for free school meals and those from service families, is below the national average. Almost all pupils are from minority ethnic backgrounds and most of them speak English as an additional language.


Ethnographic Research

“Ethnography literally means ‘a portrait of a people’. Ethnography is a written description of a particular culture – the customs, beliefs, and behaviour – based on information collected through fieldwork.” –Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson, 2000.

Ethnography is a qualitative research method often used in social sciences, particularly in anthropology and in sociology. It is often employed for gathering empirical data on human societies/cultures. Data collection is often done through participant observation in which the researcher becomes a part of the community on which research has to be done. Data can also be collected through interviews, questionnaires, etc. Ethnography aims to describe the nature of those who are studied (i.e. to describe a people, an ethnos) through writing. It can also be called a “case report”. Ethnography can be widely used in education. The researcher has to become a part of the particular group in order to conduct ethnographic study where the focus is to get familiar with group’s culture to then sensing the underlying problems.

Action research

Action research in education can be defined as the process of studying a school situation to understand and improve the quality of the educative process (Hensen, 1996; Johnson, 2012; McTaggart, 1997). It provides practitioners with new knowledge and understanding about how to improve educational practices or resolve significant problems in classrooms and schools (Mills; Stringer, 2008). Action research uses a systematic process (Dinkelman, 1997; McNiff, Lomax, & Whitehead, 1996), is participatory in nature (Holter & Frabutt, 2012), and offers multiple, beneficial opportunities for those professionals working within the teaching profession (Johnson; McTaggart; Schmuck, 1997). These opportunities include facilitating the professional development of educators (Barone et al., 1996), increasing teacher empowerment (Book, 1996; Fueyo & Koorland, 1997; Hensen), and bridging the gap between research and practice (Johnson; Mills).
(Hine, G. S. C. (2013). The importance of action research in teacher education programs. In Design, develop, evaluate: The core of the learning environment. Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-8 February 2013. Perth: Murdoch University.
A review of research which informed this study:
Research findings demonstrate the importance of implementing a Key Persons approach within the nursery setting, especially when considering the impact upon children’s Personal, Social and Emotional development. Bowlby’s attachment theory focuses on the link between children developing a strong attachment with a familiar adult and the child’s well-being and social development. Early Years Matters also emphasise the link between attachment and children’s social development within the early years:
 “Attachments are the emotional bonds that young children develop with parents and other carers such as their key person. Children with strong early attachments cry less when separated. They engage in more pretend play and sustain attention for longer. They are less aggressive and are popular with other children and with adults. Their sense of who they are is strong. Children need to be safe in the relationship they have with parents or carers. They are vulnerable but will develop resilience when their physical and psychological well-being is protected by an adult. Being emotionally attached to such an adult helps the child feel secure that the person they depend on is there for them.  When children feel safe they are more inclined to try things out and be more independent. They are confident to express their ideas and feelings and feel good about themselves. Attachment influences a child’s immediate all-round development and future relationships.” (Early Years Matters, 2016-
Research stresses that the Key Persons approach in the early years should not only be implemented but is also best practice. Statutory guidance (Department for education-2014) states that “each child must be assigned a key person.” (Statutory Framework for the EYFS, p. 37), and guidance from the National Strategies explains the risks of Early Years settings where adults work with and meet the care needs of every child within the setting rather then adopting the Key Persons approach; “considerable research indicates that the outcomes for children in settings like these are not good: it is a system of group care that can lead to anxiety, aggression or withdrawn behaviour.” (Guidance: the key person in reception classes and small nursery settings Julian Grenier, Peter Elfer, Julia Manning Morton, Dilys Wilson and Katie Dearnley) 
The research demonstrated the need for the effective implementation of Key Persons within the Nursery setting and indicated that, with successful application, the Personal, Social and Emotional development of the children would improve.
An overview of actions:
In order to implement the Key Persons approach within the nursery setting a considerable amount of changes had to be made to the pre-existing timetable and the way in which staff observed and worked with the children.
Firstly staff training was key in ensuring that all members of the nursery team knew why the Key Persons approach was being used and how theirs roles would change throughout the year. Continuous support and guidance was instrumental in ensuring Key Persons were able to access the development matters document to enable them to observe and plan for their key children.
Time was set aside daily for Key time, where children would sit in their Key groups, with their Key Person and talk. During Key time, children were encouraged to develop their skills in all of the PSED areas. Key Persons were also allocated daily time to work and play with their key children, for example carrying out focuses and supporting children during play.The Nursery practitioners also led stay and play sessions with parents, they were able to talk to them about their child’s progress and next steps. This also enabled them to find out more about each child within their group in order to build a deeper relationship. 
The participants of the Gants Hill Partnership Teaching Alliance Excellence in Early Years met regularly in order to observe each others research projects in practice and worked together to “critique” each project and develop further steps/actions to take. 
Data has shown improvement in all areas of the children’s Personal, Social and Emotional Development. Charts below compare the entry level scores compared to end of Summer 1 data in each of the PSED strands.
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Additional impacts include:

1.An increased amount of child lead interactions with adults- children are confident to speak to their Key Person.

2.Children are more confident to talk in their Key groups.

3.Children are more confident to talk to their peers.

4.Key Persons know their key children well- they are starting to adapt planning and activities for the children who are in their key groups.


1. Early Years providers should consider which team members have the most suitable skills and knowledge to take on the Key Persons role.

2. All Early Years practitioners need to remember that good interactions must happen with all children and not just their Key children.

3. Do all of the Early Years practitioners fully understand why the Key Persons role is needed in relation to research? Are all Early Years practitioners on board with the changes being implemented?


1. Are you part of an Early Years network in order to gain ideas from others? Do you have collogues who can give you advice on best practice?

2. Can your setting provide Nursery practitioners with training and support?

3. Do you have enough staff to ensure that Key group sizes are not too large?