When successfully managing multiple ECE learning services or programs, there are initiatives you can implement that will make the difference between success and chaos. Leading with purpose and building culture and systems are both areas that can have a positive impact on your organization. It is a vast topic! If you recently attended the webinar hosted by Melony Gibson and Kelly Hansinger from Bright Horizons, you will know that another critical strategy for successful multi-site management is having well-documented standard operating procedures (SOPs). SOPs help create quality outcomes for your organization, staff, families, and, most importantly, children.
What are SOPs?
When managing multiple sites and programs, leaders bring different strengths and qualities to their work, which should be encouraged. However, when every leader uses their systems and practices, it can lead to chaos, particularly when thinking about health and safety, licensing, and compliance-related tasks. Melony and Kelly shared many valuable strategies to help multi-site managers create and implement SOPs in their organizations.
SOPs are step-by-step processes created by a team or an organization that helps employees carry out routine operations. They aim to achieve quality and consistency of performance as well as improve communication. They also help organizations comply with industry regulations, licensing accreditation and quality standards.
Change takes time
When beginning on this path, it is important to remember that change takes time and hard work. But the investment in developing robust SOPs pays itself off in no time. Once solid systems and procedures are in place, consistency becomes the norm regardless of who takes responsibility at any given moment. When staffing changes occur, consistency remains in place for educators, families, and children. Everyone knows what to expect and who to expect it from. With consistency comes trust and a sense of security. When systems are transparent, well-documented, and practiced, quality shines through.
When developing new systems and procedures, managers must be resilient and committed to integrating the new ways of working with confidence. Know that change takes time, so make sure to celebrate minor successes along the way. Commit to your decisions, and your hard work will reward you.
Key focuses when developing your SOPs
There are several main areas you should include in your SOPs. These are great starting points for you to build upon as you begin to formulate your ideas.
Family and staff handbooks
Whether you supervise an extensive network of programs or just a handful, the policies and procedures relating to families and staff must be consistent from center to center and program to program. This is helpful when children and their families move to a different centre within a network. Your SOPs will help build belonging and prevent misunderstandings that may lead to complaints. They will understand the way things happen across your organization. The same is true for your employees. It is common for educators to move across an organization for various reasons. They should expect the same quality and consistency if they are moving from one center to another within your network. This builds trust and can save time spent “learning the organizational ropes,” meaning educators can instead spend time getting to know their new teaching team, children, and families. Again, this helps to build a strong sense of belonging and community. These handbooks serve as an equalizer, guiding quality practice and communication.
Melony Gibson discussed the importance of having documented systems for communication, not just the type of communication educators have with children and families daily, but also phone etiquette, email etiquette, and having “difficult conversations.” Consider the importance of a prospective family member’s first interaction with a centre when they are exploring options for their child to attend a learning service. The quality of this initial interaction can be the difference between a family choosing your learning service or another learning service. This “customer service” could cost you an enrollment, which may have a negative financial impact on your organization. Creating a procedure around different communication points ensures consistent quality customer service, which leads to customer satisfaction. This not only helps with retention but can also have the flow-on effect of helping to build a positive reputation within the local community. Families are very good at sharing information with other families, so having high-quality and consistent communication will likely lead to referrals via word of mouth.
Health and Safety
Health and safety procedures are essential, and having consistent and in-depth protocols and procedures is vital. They are critical not only for children’s well-being but also for your employees’ well-being. We have all heard stories about when things go wrong because health and safety procedures needed more clarity. Documenting consistent and detailed processes is crucial to avoid the risk of accidents or injury. Implementing standard health and safety practices means reducing any room for error by considering children’s and educators’ safety and well-being.
Licensing requirements, accreditation, and quality rating systems are all areas you can’t afford to sidestep. Maintaining comprehensive staff and child files is critical to remain operational. Checklists are fundamental, ensuring every staff member can easily find the necessary information. They also show that each file is complete and allow for accountability when incorporating a system where two people sign off on documentation. Again, consistency is vital and leaves no room for error. Melony recommends the center director sign off on all documentation relating to licensing, which not only creates accountability but also helps to build trust.
Whether you are creating processes for family, staff, community, or customer meetings, it is vital to have consistent protocols or templates. This will help your staff understand the purpose of each meeting, make the best use of the time in the meeting, and, most importantly, document the discussion, outcomes, and action points. A consistent process also helps staff prepare for meetings and bring all relevant information to the discussion. Having a template for an agenda helps staff prepare for the meeting and allows for transparency. Understanding the frequency of meetings helps with efficiency and planning. Having meeting processes also allows for meetings to go ahead, even if key participants are unexpectedly away. Documenting meetings helps staff revisit the notes to clarify information and makes reviewing previous meeting outcomes easier.
Programming for children
When all educators in your organization have a universal understanding of your philosophy and vision, it supports developmentally appropriate practice. It helps ensure positive learning outcomes for children. As a multi-site manager, quality care and learning experiences for children are at the core of your everyday work. But how do you know your programs are high quality? How are you ensuring educators are implementing best teaching practices? What tools are you using to review the learning programs in your organization regularly? These are all important considerations that are worth spending time reflecting on with your pedagogical team.
Human resources practices are essential to ensure equity for all employees. Have you considered your onboarding or orientation experience for new educators joining your organization? How do you support growth opportunities within your network of educators and leaders? Building HR practices into your SOPs means offering transparency and core expectations for every employee within your organization. Sharing consistent expectations for growth and development provides all staff with trust and security. It lifts employee morale and helps build a culture of growth.
Unless you have an in-house marketing team, this work is often left to administrators to figure out as they go. Building marketing practices into your SOPs can take a lot of guesswork out of how you grow your organization. Depending on the context, it can save you time, as you can “rinse and repeat” by replicating previous marketing initiatives that have proven to be effective. To ensure consistency across the marketing initiatives within your organization, consider the core materials, resources, and collateral you can use in your marketing. You can then use these as a basis while individualizing them for each centre in your network, with a few edits or tweaks to highlight each learning service’s unique character and culture.
Solid financial practices are of the utmost importance if you are to avoid the negative consequences of missed tuition payments or billing issues. Having systems in place means you can be confident that aside from the odd minor hiccup, nothing will fall apart financially at the drop of a hat.
Providing programs and events for families helps to build relationships and culture. Bridging a child’s life between home and center has a flow-on effect, strengthens the community around each child, and is something to be encouraged. Creating processes to support leaders and educators in planning and hosting events and programs for families helps your organization consistently bring the community together. This does not only apply to “after-hours” events. This can also include parent education initiatives, center visits, incorporating support services into center life, celebrations, fundraising, and more.
Developing comprehensive standard operating procedures is essential to managing a successful multi-site early learning organization. It provides a framework for consistency and continuity across all locations. It ensures that staff, parents, and children know the organization’s policies and procedures. A well-designed SOP can help mitigate risks and promote best practices, improving program quality and positive outcomes for the children and families served. While the process of developing SOPs may seem daunting, the investment of time and effort will undoubtedly pay off in the long run, leading to a more efficient and effective organization.