The Health and Well-Being of Early Childhood Educators: A Need for Compassion and Commitment

teacher daycareIn a recent report, early childhood educators working in Pennsylvania Head Start programs reported chronic illnesses, such as obesity and headache, in significantly higher proportions than nationally representative cohorts of women of similar age and socioeconomic status. Notably, in this anonymous online survey, 24 percent of the over 2,000 Head Start staff surveyed reported clinically significant levels of depression.

Early childhood educators must be well to do well in their jobs. Current public and political attention to early childhood education and universal pre-K indicates a growing interest in ensuring that children have strong early childhood education that prepares them for future success. And research emphasizes that children need consistent, sensitive, caring, and stable relationships with adults in order to thrive. Adults who are well, physically and mentally, are likely to have an easier time engaging in such relationships than adults who are struggling with chronic illness, such as depression. Thus, it is critical that we pay attention to, invest in, and be compassionate about the well-being of the adults who provide early care and education.

Why would early childhood teachers be sicker than their peers? Working in early childhood education is stressful, and certain types of stress can negatively affect physical and mental health. Preschool teachers face high demands, such as managing disruptive classroom behaviors, completing required paperwork, and ensuring that children are socially and academically ready for kindergarten. In addition, the job of early childhood educators tends to be undervalued by society. Wages are lower than other professionals with comparable education levels. Recent data from the National Survey of Early Care and Education (NSECE) estimate the median annual salary for center-based, early childhood educators to be $22,000. Compare this to $50,000, the median annual salary for kindergarten and elementary school teachers. For early childhood educators whose job may be particularly stressful because they are working with children living in poverty—children whose difficult circumstances may affect their classroom behavior and needs—their wages indicate that the teachers themselves may be living at or near the poverty line.

The reasons why early childhood educators might disproportionately suffer from poor mental and physical health are complex and cannot be explained using survey data alone. Work environment, income, and societal status likely all contribute. We can hope that the status of early-childhood educators will improve as more attention is brought to bear on the important role they play in the development of our nation’s most vulnerable children. Clearly, low wages represent a long-term problem that requires a policy response. In the meantime, compassionate solutions and health promoting initiatives could provide some immediate benefit to early childhood educators in their work. Promising approaches include access for teachers to mental health consultants1 and mentor-coaches.2 Mindfulness based stress reduction3 and training in contemplative teaching could also provide teachers with personal resources to more effectively engage with children and families under stress. In particular, mindfulness, a technique of attending to one’s thoughts and emotions without judgment, could act as a buffer to the teachers’ stress and poor health.4

Calls are growing louder for increasing support for the early childhood care and education workforce as well as for including wellness promotion in professional development. Our country’s young children, particularly those living in poverty, spend a great deal of time with early childhood educators. The well-being of those adults is paramount to the quality of care they are able to provide. Researchers, practitioners, and policymakers must consider this professional population’s assets, such as their strong commitment to children and the meaning and purpose they find in their work, and collaborate with early childhood educators to build upon those strengths.

Rachel Gooze, research scientist

 


[1] Raver, C.C., Blair, C., & Li-Grining, C. (2012). Extending models of emotional self-regulation to classroom settings: Implications for professional development. In Effective early childhood professional development. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

[2] Downer, J. T., Kraft-Sayre, M. E., & Pianta, R. C. (2009). Ongoing, web-mediated professional development focused on teacher–child interactions: Early childhood educators’ usage rates and self-reported satisfaction. Early Education and Development20(2), 321-345.

[3] Gold, E., Smith, A., Hopper, I., Herne, D., Tansey, G., & Hulland, C. (2010). Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) for primary school teachers. Journal of Child and Family Studies19(2), 184-189.

[4] Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga ES, et al. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine,174(3), 357-368.

Comments

I notice no one has entered a blog this year and this really needs to be looked into deeper! Their are so many reason I am writing this but the main one is I have a class on Special Topics in DC and as I read I get more and more upset with our nation and the people we vote in charge of our nation. My topic is Teachers high turnovers in early childhood education- and yes as you may guess i came across this and my finding about how low people care about educator early childhood educators makes me want to cry- but I love the gift God blessed me with so i keep going for 35 plus years Ive been doing this and I believe your article to be true and your findings not alarming but sad sad to know we still have not woke up to the fact- the first 6 years of a childs life are the very important ones for the rest of his or her life and the thanks the teachers caregiviers get is sick early retirement or just let go. Thanks for this reading!

This article reflects a conversation I recently had with a co-worker! So nice to know someone out there has some inkling of our roles and how under-valued we sometimes feel. I think Head Start is an AWESOME program that serves an even more important role in the lives of children and their families. However, while the funding for these programs should be monitored and used to ensure quality services (grant renewals, etc.); they should also be re-evaluated in the disbursement of said funding so the teachers are compensated to the reflect economic demands of our nation. I applaud all Early Childhood Educators for continuing to support our future leaders! THANK YOU!

Yes, preschool teachers are under-recognized for the very important role and influence they have on preschoolers. If only teachers were professionally remunerated, hopefully, that will reduce the high turnover rate and musical chairs syndrome of teachers hopping to another preschool that pays a little more. I guess it is just as tiring for a teacher having to adapt to a new working culture as much as the children having to adapt under the care of a new teacher.

Wonderful article! The Mental health of parents and child care providers has a direct impact on these growing children. Let’s see some funding poor into our early child care providers…it’s worth every penny.

very nice article, i want to add that early childhood is so important for the whole life of an individual and the ECE are the builders of this whole life, give them RESPECT.

Amen to this article. Bottom line under value early childhood educators..in essence you are not placing value on the young child..so what then becomes the purpose of these programs?????

Thanks so much for your comment! Your perspective on the history of early childhood educators’ training and wages is so important to share. You eloquently sum up the need for compassion and commitment: “If we don’t address the needs of the educators, they cannot adequately address the needs of the children.” Thank you again.

Such an important article! Children in poverty are enrolled in programs that are sunk in poverty themselves.While this article is about Head Start, I have witnesses this for decades as I mentored small rural child care in the south. In the 80’s the message was, if caregivers get trained , then they will earn more. And so for years child caregivers have gone to school in the evenings or weekends (after working 40+ hours). But to no avail. Thirty some years later they are still earning minimal wages, have little access to benefits and must perform their work in environments that are lacking in space, acoustics, access to nature and basic amenities. If we don’t address the needs of the educators , they cannot adequately address the needs of the children. These are brains in the making and we can do better! One way is to connect corporations and business to helping pay for the early care systems. After all, most children are in early care mainly because they parents are working.

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