WASHINGTON – Being attentive to early childhood educators' well-being is critical not only to retaining teachers but to helping them be better classroom leaders, said speakers at a Wednesday session at the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
During a two-month pilot program last summer with eight early childhood educators in the Washington, D.C. area, the speakers said they explored how wellness coaching could reduce teachers' stress and increase their self-confidence and optimism.
"Our intention was to create a robust community of learners connecting together," said Karin Spencer, an education and wellness consultant and former teacher.
The group met in person and online and had access to on-demand resources and videos. They studied positive psychology, cultivating empathy, mindfulness, meditation, Pilates and how to plan for their personal well-being. Participants could also communicate through a discussion board to share strategies they were using to improve their well-being.
"We wanted to really have strategies and resources in place that were focused on meeting individual needs, but at the same time, developing a community because we wanted folks to feel connected, because what we were hearing from teachers is they felt disconnected," Spencer said.
In fact, a study Tuesday revealed that teachers reported higher anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation than even healthcare workers during the pandemic. A survey published last month by early childhood education resource provider Teaching Strategies found 45% of early childhood educators said they are burdened with mental health challenges and burnout. In that survey, 20% of respondents said they are contemplating leaving the profession.
"Chronic occupational stress due to long hours, excessive workload and a lack of autonomy is really impacting teachers," said Heather Walter, an assistant professor of early childhood education at George Mason University.
During the pilot program, the organizers introduced several activities coaches can use to support teacher well-being. They include:
- Wellness wheel. This exercise developed by the University of New Hampshire can help teachers determine if their efforts are aligned with their values by reflecting on how they spend most of their time. Areas of reflection include occupational, physical, financial and emotional, among others. Teachers can also consider what is most challenging and where they want to focus more energy.
- Best positive selves. This activity aims to help teachers respond to problems with confidence and autonomy. The approach is based in research on optimism, but it's not about being happy all the time, Walter said. The exercise invites participants to think about their past accomplishments and then think about a future time period and what they would do to be their best possible self at that point in the future. Participants are then encouraged to think about the steps they need to get there.
- Stealth kindness. This exercise encourages empathy and self compassion. Participants simply give a silent message of kindness or "well wish" to a person. "I think the thought in my head. I know this sounds a little corny, but it's fantastic. It puts you in a fantastic frame of mind as the person who's giving kindness," Spencer said.
The speakers said they have plans for another wellness coaching session and eventually want to create a nonprofit to award grants to expand their teacher wellness efforts.
One attendee at the session, Charlotte Brewer, director of the Goddard School in Dayton, N.J., said she was going to take many of the strategies she's learned from the wellness session back to her school.
Brewer, whose school serves infants through pre-K, said she's concerned about low morale and teacher retention."There are so many good people out there for children and we're losing them," Brewer said.