When it comes to feeling cared for, what do team members REALLY want? 

It’s no secret that Australia’s early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector is undergoing many changes and challenges, with one of the most difficult being attracting and retaining high quality educators and leaders to not only meet ratio requirements, but to support services and children to grow and thrive. 

With challenges in meeting ratio, and with quality educators the biggest asset to a service, it’s never been more important to attract and retain educators who are passionate, committed, and dedicated to providing top quality education and care to children. 

To support approved providers, leaders and decision makers to put happiness at the heart of services again, we spoke with a cross section of ECEC’s best and brightest to learn more about what makes them happy at work.

Begin at the beginning

Before hearing from educators, a moment is needed to reflect on the policies, practices and procedures shape the climate of a workplace.

You’ve hired professionals who are full of ideas, enthusiasm, previous experience and a genuine desire to work with children and help them to be successful – do the policies, practices and procedures of your workspace empower them to do that, or do they send them the message that they cannot be trusted to complete simple tasks using their common sense?

“Treat me like me, not a number”

One of the most common answers we got from our panel was the need to be individual when thinking about how best to support team members. For some people public accolades were the way to go, while others would prefer a quiet word of thanks, or even a literal pat on the back with no words exchanged.

You know your team best, and if you don’t, maybe it’s time to ask. Everyone wants to be acknowledged for their hard work and dedication, but that acknowledgement sweet spot is different for everyone.

Libby has a simple way of showing everyone that they are unique, yet still part of the team.

“They each have their own cup in the staff room, and I make sure we stock all the coffees, teas and other drinks they like for them to enjoy on their break.”

This individual touch also extends to asking team members when and how they would like to be included in the broader running of the service, and how they prefer to receive information.

Building on this idea, Sarah recommended a resource, The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace by Gary Chapman and Paul White (2011), saying it totally changed the way she showed appreciation to her teams.

Pay, power and perception

A number of educators we spoke to mentioned the poor rate of pay in ECEC, compared to the level of work they put in, and that financial incentives were welcomed. More than just being given money, though, the educators wanted to feel as though they were part of a team who was lobbying for change.

Being paid for staff meetings and training sessions, being paid for open days and working bees, and receiving overtime for those moments when they are asked to work beyond their normal hours were things our panel brought up repeatedly.

“I know a lot of centres do the ‘rewards’ thing, but it honestly feels pretty patronising” Sarah said. “It also reinforces a power balance.”

Remember how hard it is, and pitch in

Our educators want leaders and managers to remember their times working directly with children, and the multiple pressures and challenges that can bring.

“Spend time in the rooms,” Angelique said.

Emma, who is in a leadership role, agreed.

“Advocacy on their behalf, never forgetting what it feels like to be in the thick of it with tears and poo and chaos so getting in there and actually supporting them then having real empathy for the incredibly hard work they do,” is her secret to success.

“Take the pressure off whenever you can, lead a positive culture, and give them the safe workspace that they deserve.”

Tokens of thanks

When it comes to acknowledgement one size does not fit all. Just as not all children will want to engage in messy play or large body movement, not all educators will feel appreciated in the same way.

For some, public praise and acknowledgement will boost their confidence and inspire them to reach higher, while others can think of nothing worse. There is no one size fits all solution for staff appreciation. What works for one team one year may not work for the same team of people a year later.

Early childhood, and the educators who work within it, is a dynamic and changing space, which demands consistent and considered check-ins, and an understanding of the unique needs of everyone within the space.

To learn more about what your team needs to feel comfortable, appreciated, supported and valued, the most straightforward way is to ask. It might be more money. It might be a better staff space. It might be a desire to have more of a say in how the service runs. It might be quarterly staff dinners. It might be an employee of the month program…or it might be a combination of all of the above. The answer to “how do I make my team happy” will be as unique as your team itself.


On a practical level, to begin to explore tokens of thanks, the educator panel had a number of suggestions including:

  • Thankful Thursday: a small gesture each Thursday whether it be food, stationary or a thoughtful note
  • Sharing educator achievements with families through newsletters or documentation software
  • Birthday and Christmas gifts
  • End of year celebrations
  • Cash bonuses, gift cards or spa treatments
  • Acknowledgement jar: little notes are left for educators about what they have done well
  • Educational leader award – given at staff meeting. Comes with the choice of a children’s book to help build resources.
  • Coffee deliveries
  • “I see you” tickets which can be exchanged for a chocolate
  • Educator of the week who is allowed to leave an hour early and still be paid

For more ideas about how to build positive team morale, please see here.


Please feel free to contact us on 02 8916 7422


You can email support on at support @ kindyhub.com.au

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