How Childcare Workers’ Motivations and Stressors Impact Their Wellbeing
Research on early childhood educators’ wellbeing is expanding. But more work is needed to better understand their motivations and reduce the stressors they experience.
Once Lieny Jeon, Jane Batten Bicentennial Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education in the UVA School of Education and Human Development, finalized the scope of her research project exploring the psychological and physical wellbeing of early childcare educators, she began connecting with educators who would be participating in her study.
“More than once, when I explain my study to recruit them, they began to cry,” Jeon said. “One told me that I was the first person to ask about their work and life.”
Over the past several years, federal and state budgets reveal increasing investment in early childhood education. Similarly, the ECE research portfolio continues to grow. Just last month, the White House released the 2023 Economic Report of the President which dedicated an entire chapter to early childhood education, citing several research studies conducted by faculty and alumni of the UVA School of Education and Human Development. Included among that research are studies about the psychological wellbeing of childcare providers, including the impacts of chronically low pay and the stresses of the pandemic.
“No one was looking at teacher wellbeing ten years ago,” Jeon said. “Thankfully, that has changed. We’re seeing more federal investments in early childcare teacher wellbeing, including funds for research.” And yet, according to Jeon, many childcare educators continue to feel unseen.
Jeon’s research focuses primarily on Head Start providers. A federally funded program, Head Start locations aim to serve children from families at or below the poverty level.
Motivators and Stressors: A Day in The Life
A workforce disproportionally comprised of women of color, especially Black women, those who choose to work as ECE providers are overwhelmingly motivated by a love of young children and a desire to give back to their communities, according to Jeon’s research. And yet, this heart-felt motivation is met with significant stressors, both physical and psychological.
“When we consider the physical demands of the job, we can start with the size of the furniture in these rooms,” Jeon said. “The adults are sitting in very small chairs, are squatting and doing a lot of lifting.”
For example, on average, two-year-old children weigh between 26 and 27 pounds and are typically not yet potty trained. Even with a federally required ratio of 4 children to 1 adult, a teacher may be lifting children more than a dozen times per day just for diaper changes.
“There are so many physically taxing parts of this job,” Jeon said. “The teachers have very limited use of the restroom. And young children can also cause physical harm, like hitting, kicking, or biting.”
Educators’ unmet nutritional needs are a less obvious physical stressor. Often living with food insecurity outside of work, meals during the workday can be complicated.
Some teachers may handle so many multiple tasks during their students’ mealtime that they must eat during other small breaks, like naptime. But those are often unpredictable as children may not sleep or have other needs. Other programs, Jeon explains, might have family-style meals where everyone is required to eat the same thing, with no options for dietary restrictions.
Teachers also describe concerns to their physical safety outside of the classroom. In the major U.S. city where Jeon is conducting her research, many Head Start classrooms are located in neighborhoods with high crime rates.
“These teachers are also regularly experiencing secondary trauma,” Jeon explained. “Because they tend to be deeply connected to their students and families, they carry significant levels of worry home with them that can often interrupt their sleep.”
While low pay is often cited as a top-ranking reason early childcare providers leave the workforce, Jeon found low wage is not the top indicator of wellbeing. Instead, her research identifies the top three most common stressors for teachers to be physical safety concerns, students’ challenging behavior, and paperwork.
Jeon found that teachers’ desire to be with their students is regularly interrupted by increasing amounts of paperwork required for compliance, monitoring, and tracking developmental milestones. Teachers reported to Jeon that they spend 50% of their time on paperwork.
Supporting Teachers’ Resilience and Changing Systems
Jeon’s ultimate goal is to identify ways to improve ECE teachers’ wellbeing. An activity she does with teachers in her recently developed intervention illustrates the need to both support individual teacher’s resilience while also addressing larger policies and procedures.
“At the start, we provide teachers with sticky notes and ask them to sort stressors that are within their control from stressors outside of their control,” Jeon said. “And there are so many that come outside of their control.”
The program Jeon developed, Wellbeing First, is designed to build each teacher’s capacity to overcome feelings of disempowerment and regulate their emotions. It is also designed to help create a culture of wellbeing across the center. In addition to stress management toolkits and professional development, the program provides group processing time and monthly consulting.
Jeon is testing the Wellbeing First program in 11 Head Start sites and hopes to have the results of her study within the year.