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

BlogHealthApr 7 2014

In 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.

[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.