Staff Conflict in Early Childhood Centers

Jul 04, 2018

What’s really going on when your staff has “issues”?

Getting to the heart of the problem will help you learn how to manage conflict with your staff in your center. 

In early childhood, relationships are paramount.

You work and lead through relationship, touching each other deeply. Maintaining healthy relationships with the children you care for, their parents and the colleagues that you work beside each day is both an art and a science. Much comes naturally, but MOST comes with concerted effort and practice as you hone your skills in the art of communication.

Just like you teach children to “use your words”, grownups need to do this too! Learning to use your words effectively is an ongoing process. In the next few blogs, we’ll explore ways that you can effectively and honestly address miscommunication, poor attitudes, and all the problems, both large and small that arise in early childhood programs. And the great news is these principles apply to all of your relationships, giving you the tools to address difficulties or tensions with friends and family members, too.

Sometimes words just blurt out of our mouths, spoken in a moment of anger, passion, or indignation, leaving behind a big wake of yuck if they’re not talked about when emotions subside. The longer you go without addressing conflict, the more it colors your reality.

Additionally, each person in any workplace, especially early childhood programs has a different prospective based on their role, position and experience. The leader of any program knows that your goals and vision for the “team” won’t be accomplished unless everyone is on board and the reality of what’s really going on reflects their commitment to the vision.

And while you may think you know what’s going on, sometimes reality is a little different.

One way to look at it is to think about a beach ball with a blue stripe, red stripe, green stripe and yellow stripe. When a person is holding a beach ball, they see only the color that is facing them and that is their reality. If you are an infant teacher holding the blue stripe, this is where you live, day after day. If asked what color the school is, they’ll say blue. Why? Because this is what they’re surrounded by. Blue classroom, blue children, blue parents, blue tasks, blue teaching strategies and blue schedules.

In a staff meeting, when discussing implementation of a new policy of doing unannounced lockdown drills on a regular basis, they will look at it with a blue lens. How this will interrupt babies’ schedules, how they can possibly keep them calm during the drills, how 3 teachers will transport 10 babies who can’t walk and the response of parents to interrupted naps and feedings. Their response is all blue.

But the older PreK staff, which has a red viewpoint, will see it with a red lens. They’ll be concerned about how they can teach children to cooperate in this type of drill without creating undue fear and anxiety, especially with certain children.

And the office management team will see it with their yellow lens. How will they know that everyone is accounted for? What do we have to do to create a space that’s always available for lockdown, how will we communicate with law enforcement, what happens if walk-ins come during a drill?

And the after-school team will see it through their green lens – probably no big deal for them. Their kids are familiar with these kinds of drills at school, they’re able to discuss and reason in a way that makes it easier on kids. They may see the drills as a kind of game.  

Each person’s reality is true for them and their response – the break room talk, attitudes, the way they respond in the moment- reflects their own perspective.

And that’s an easy issue!

What about harder things like rampant gossip, parent complaints, out of control behaviors or teachers with vastly different interaction styles?

How does a leader address these when everyone sees the problem through a different lens?

Usually with a staff meeting.  I imagine it might go like this:

The director says, “I think we have a problem. I hear lots of talk about staff gossip, feelings getting hurt, rumors about each other, jabs on Snapchat. This is unprofessional and we can’t have it. I want to know how you think we can stop this problem.”

It’s quiet, unnaturally quiet. Around the room, eyes glance, then look down. No one wants to speak up. Why? Because everyone, including the office staff is part of the blather and back-fence talk.

Director: “This is your chance to speak up. Lauren, what do you think? Do we have a problem?”

Lauren looks up, meekly nods “no”. More people are called on, no one speaks up.

The director says, “Okay, let’s nip this in the bud today. No one is to participate in this kind of talk any more. Agreed? Okay, agreed!”

You can imagine that the problem didn’t stop. Maybe it slowed for a few days, but as daily events unfolded, the grumbling continued with increasing volume.

Fact is, most people want the truth to come out, even if it is unpalatable. There is something within us that responds deeply to people who level with us. We appreciate those who describe reality so simply and compellingly that the truth is inevitable.

“We do have a problem. Everyone talks bad about each other. It’s like there are different cliques and they’re at war. The juiciest gossip comes from the receptionist, who tells one teacher in particular what she sees and hears from the front desk. Often times it’s conversations she’s overheard from your office. Eventually we all hear it and when it applies to me or my class, I get really mad. And it makes me feel bad and unappreciated. In fact, I’m thinking about looking for a job at another school.”  

I doubt this would be said in most staff meetings.

So, how can you get to the truth, from all these different perspectives? Who owns the truth?

Actually, everyone owns a piece of the truth. The key word is piece! No one, not even the director, owns the entire truth, because no one can be in all places at all times.

As a leader, ask yourself a few questions…

  • How many conversations have we had where issues were discussed and never resolved? Why is that?
  • If I were guaranteed honest responses to any three questions, whom would I question and what would I ask?
  • What am I pretending not to know?
  • How certain am I that my staff is committed to our school’s vision?
  • When was the last time I spoke with a staff member about his or her behavior and ended the conversation having enriched our relationship?

Self-reflection is the first step in personal discovery. And we all are growing and learning every day. So, for now, think about these questions.

Stay tuned for our next email where we’ll discuss how to prepare yourself for an honest, fierce conversation, creating healthy, unified, productive working relationships.  

And remember! These principles apply to ALL relationships, not just work – so you use them with your family, friends and other places in your life.


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Source: Fierce Conversations, Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time, by Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations, Inc., 2002

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