Grant holder
Peter Elfer, Sue Greenfield, Sue Robson, Antonia Zachariou, Early Childhood Research Centre, University of Roehampton and Dilys Wilson, Early Childhood Research Centre, University of Middlesex
Project status

Evaluating the impact of Work Discussion Groups as a model of Professional Support and Reflection

This research was about supporting nursery practitioners to be more responsive to children, parents and colleagues by offering Work Discussion (WD) as a particular kind of professional discussion forum.

Project Summary

Babies’ and young children’s wellbeing, including playful exploration, are dependent on close emotional engagements with adults (Panksepp, 2013). In early years practice, such close engagement can bring much pleasure and satisfaction but it can also be stressful and demanding. Practitioners will seek to protect themselves from this stress, when it becomes too much, by distancing themselves from children (see for example Datler et al., 2010). This research was about supporting nursery practitioners to be more responsive to children, parents and colleagues by offering Work Discussion (WD) as a particular kind of professional discussion forum. Two WD groups were offered both lasting 12 months, one for practitioners, meeting at weekly intervals for 75 minutes and one for nursery managers meeting two weekly for 90 minutes. The evaluation focused primarily on the practitioners.

Work Discussion has its historical roots in the work of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Mental Health Trust (the Tavistock). The aim of WD is to provide a carefully structured and facilitated forum where there can be sensitive reflection on day to day work experience, including attention to underlying emotions.

Froebel believed that knowledge depended upon reflection, in particular on reflections of ‘man’s’ own actions (1838, cited in Liebschner 1992). In a contemporary context, Whinnett (2016) emphasises the importance of the Froebelian heritage of practitioners gathering together to discuss the children and their work.

The research evaluated the impact of WD from the point of view of children, parents and the practitioners participating.

Key findings

First, the WD groups had many benefits but there were also challenges. Practitioners were asked to present an aspect of their work that was either going very well or proving more problematic. Talking about work that is going well is not so hard. However, even though work interactions will sometimes be difficult for all people in all kinds of organizations, it is not always easy to talk about them and try and understand underlying factors.

Second, despite this, the nursery practitioners’ participating thought the WD groups had had benefits in their work with children and families. Perceptions of benefits varied but included being less judgmental, more understanding, better able to empathise, better sharing of information within the team, and thinking more deeply and more objectively about the children.

Third, with respect to the possible impact on the children, the strength of the qualitative and quantitative data lend confidence to a conclusion that WD had a beneficial effect on children’s personal, social and emotional development, as evidenced using statements from Development Matters (Early Education, 2012). Development Matters, whilst non-statutory (and also not standardised on any particular group of children) was produced by Early Education in England with support from the Department for Education, and is in use in practice.

The video-based data showed that the majority made significant progress over the course of the study. Whilst approximately one third (7) of children made age-appropriate gains of 7-8 months, twice that number (14) showed gains ranging between 15 and 26 months.

Finally, the evaluation revealed that parents were often facing very difficult housing, finance and immigration issues. In these circumstances, partnership between parents and practitioners may be particularly demanding. Parents were unsure about what happened at nursery and did not share much information about their home environments with practitioners. Though there is no direct evidence that the Work Discussion Groups improved relationships between practitioners and parents, parents were much more willing to be interviewed in the last rounds of interviews towards the end of the research as they became more familiar with the researcher.

Next Steps

  1. This was a major piece of work funded by the Trust that has produced some key findings on the contribution of Work Discussion. This is of vital and timely significance when many commentators are calling for a turn in attention to the experience of practitioners as they engage in what is now recognized as much more complex and demanding work than ‘simply looking after small children’. The findings therefore need to be disseminated to policy makers as well as nursery providers and practitioners.
  2. We have learned a lot about Work Discussion as one model of professional reflection. The model ‘works’ but it can be improved. We have invaluable feedback from the participants on how it can be improved and we now need a taskforce to work on that.

The WD groups used in the evaluation were facilitated by two child psychotherapists, trained in group relations. They are a scarce resource and we want to explore if those with early years expertise and an interest in supporting practitioner reflection would be interested in a bespoke training on facilitating such groups.


Elfer, P., Greenfield, S., Robson, S., Wilson, D., Zachariou, A. (2018) Love, satisfaction and exhaustion in the nursery: methodological issues in evaluating the impact of Work Discussion groups in the nursery, Early Child Development and Care, early online 16 Mar 2018. DOI: 10.1080/03004430.2018.1446431.

Research documents

Final Evaluation Report Elfer et al Work Discussion April 2018