Policies | Are Your Breaks Broken?

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How well do your program’s staff break policies align with how breaks actually happen in your early learning setting?

In my 30 years or so in the profession–much of that time as a speaker/author addressing caregiver burnout–I’ve noticed there is often a disconnect between official program polices and how things happen in the classroom.

For example, I’ve met many caregivers who were led to believe that break time was theirs to do with as they pleased–when, in practice, they end up regularly spending their break time:

  • Folding (towels, dish clothes, crib and cot sheets, the clothes of children who had poop-gushing diaper ‘blow outs’ earlier in the day).
  • Cutting (hearts, circles, shamrocks, circles, goldfish) for an upcoming art project.
  • Completing (observation forms, meal program paperwork, incident reports, grant proposals, lesson plans).
  • Sitting in a darkened room full of napping (and not napping) children while they dream of a quick trip down the street to Juno’s Coffee.
  • Covering (grudgingly) for Karen, who did not show up for work, so the classroom stays complaint with licensing ratios.
  • Attending a (not so) quick staff meeting called to assure everyone is on the same page about last Tuesday’s preschool room incident.

I’ve met others (mostly family child care providers) who would love a chance to sit and cut hearts, fold laundry, or complete paperwork for a few minutes during a hectic day. It’s hard to take anything break-like when you work alone. Or when you work in a program where breaks are like unicorns–everyone dreams of them but no one has ever seen one.

Early learning professionals need (real) breaks. Children are physically and emotionally exhausting. Stepping (completely) away from them for a bit allows caregivers to recharge and come back to the work with a refreshed mindset.

Sure, watching the nap room is better than nothing–but not much better. Caregivers need real breaks. Breaks where they can disconnect from the kids (and poop, and paperwork, and drama). Breaks where they can think about other stuff. Breaks where they can center themselves. Ideally, breaks where they can pee without two-year-old fingers jiggling the doorknob as a sweet voice asks, “What’s that noise?”

The people sharing the above examples of non-break breaks also shared that those experiences left them feeling unappreciated, devalued, and disrespected. Not really the ideal feels for someone responsible for the well-being of small children.

It boils down to this: when writing or revising staff break policies, aim to create break times that allow staff to recenter and recharge–and then commit to putting those policies into practice. I understand this can be both financially and logistically challenging, but the payoff for meeting the challenges is a more effective workforce and better cared for children.

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Jeff is an early learning speaker, toymaker, podcaster, content creator, author, and founder of Playvolution HQ who is really bad at getting his picture taken.