High levels of educator stress and poor mental and physical health can inhibit the ability to effectively engage with children, which is especially damaging since children’s learning depends on the quality of interactions with adults.
Inadequate compensation is a primary source of stress. Low wages and minimal benefits lead to a workforce that is often emotionally and physically unwell and dependent on public assistance.
Low compensation, limited support, and lack of opportunities for career development make it difficult to attract and retain high-quality educators.
The field suffers from high turnover, which means less stability for children. Increasing compensation and improving the work environment could lessen turnover.
Educators need preparation and workforce support that equips them to serve children well and handle stressful situations.
Salary and benefits, staffing structures, opportunities for advancement and support, employee turnover, and health and well-being all impact the workforce’s ability to provide high-quality education and care to young children.
Hear stories and statistics about early educators working for very low pay under stressful conditions:
There is better understanding now than ever before about the importance of early learning, yet over the past 25 years, there have been no meaningful changes in the wages of those caring for and educating our youngest children. Child care educators still earn poverty-level wages, making less than pre-K teachers and earning less than half of what K–12 educators do. Large disparities persist even when education levels are comparable. Child care employees, mostly women, earn approximately 50 percent less than the average woman in the civilian workforce.
Employee benefits can also be limited for early educators working outside of public school settings. A North Carolina workforce survey found that it was common for centers not to provide health care or paid sick leave. Professionals working outside of school settings also often have less access to supportive policies and structures, such as paid planning time and stable schedules. These professionals often experience economic insecurity and suffer the stress that comes along with it. They often depend on public assistance programs or take on second jobs to make ends meet.
Without increasing wages and benefits and providing more opportunities for training and professional learning, workforce well-being will continue to suffer. Poor staffing structures and lack of opportunities for career advancement also diminish quality of practice. Staffing policies determine what roles are needed and what professionals in those roles must do. Professional learning systems need to be able to prepare educators for the various roles. Unprepared and unsupported educators are less equipped to provide children with what they need. A lack of clearly defined professional development or career pathways can make it difficult to recruit and retain high quality educators.
High stress and unhappiness at work are associated with high turnover, which means less stability for children. Staff turnover can compromise program quality and negatively impact children since their development and learning depend upon secure relationships and positive interactions with adults. The turnover rate in childcare centers is four times higher than in elementary schools, on average, and inadequate compensation is a primary reason. Raising salaries is especially important for centers trying to retain staff with higher education and qualifications who have the option of working in public schools.
The early education and care workforce experiencesmore stress than many other fields.Experiencing depressive symptoms is not uncommon, especially for those working with high-risk populations. A 2012 survey of Head Start staff members in Pennsylvania found that they had poorer physical and mental health compared to women in other fields. This is not only harmful for them, but also for the children they serve.
“Many states or localities are describing pathways for career development to help with retention and recruitment of good educators. A common challenge in both cases is how to make these pathways reflective of increasing competency, as opposed to increasing education.” (pg. 470)
“High turnover rates can lower the quality of childcare and education programs, as frequent staff changes can have negative effects on children’s development—particularly for infants and toddlers, whose attachments and relationships with educators are disrupted.” (pg. 471)
Questions for Policymakers, Higher Education, and the Workforce
Are there viable career paths for early childhood educators?
Is there pay parity between educators working in pre-K through third grade?
Do educators have access to wages and benefits that reflect the skilled nature of their work?
Do educators have access to education and training programs needed to further their careers?
Are higher education programs able to meet the needs (cost, scheduling, etc.) of early childhood educators already in the workforce who wish to pursue higher education?
How do higher education programs prepare educators to handle the stress of their jobs?
What types of support do educators have to improve their well-being? What do they need?
This is a multimedia guidebook inspired by and drawn from the Transforming the Workforce for Children From Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation(National Academies Press, 2015). This guidebook adds to that volume with key takeaways, videos, interactive tools, a glossary, and more. We have designed it with three doorways for three different but overlapping audiences: educators who work directly with children, educators in higher education who prepare those educators, and policymakers interested in improving early learning settings for children from B–8.
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