This latest Pre-to-3 column highlights research on issues that contribute to high turnover in early-childhood education programs. Past installments of Pre-to-3 can be found here.
The pay gap that exists between early educators and those who work in K-12 schools is frequently blamed for high turnover in the early-childhood education field. But back and knee pain, below-average cardiorespiratory health and work-related injuries might also have something to do with teachers leaving the profession.
Those are among the findings of the Happy Teacher Project, a study focusing on the physical, psychological and professional wellbeing of early educators, as well as on conditions including pay, benefits and the environment in which they work.
Kyong-Ah Kwon, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma, is leading the study, which focuses on a sample of over 260 teachers working with infants and toddlers across 38 early education centers in Tulsa.
In addition to using surveys and observations, the research team — which also includes experts in physical therapy, interior design, and public health and nutrition — has measured teachers’ weight and cardiorespiratory fitness and conducted interviews with 40 teachers on how their working conditions could be improved.
Three-quarters of the teachers in the sample were overweight or obese, a third reported their doctors had diagnosed them with urinary-tract infections, and one-fifth said they have no adult-sized furniture in their classrooms.
“We are all-year-round, that is pretty exhausting,” voiced one provider to the researchers. “We work really, really hard, so it would be nice if we have more days off. I feel like I am spending too much more time with other people’s kiddos and not mine.”
The physical demands of the job, which include constant bending, kneeling, crouching and carrying as teachers pick up young children or get down to their level contribute to musculoskeletal injuries, Kwon writes in a recent article on the study.
“Our observations also revealed high noise levels in the classroom at a level similar to a busy street or alarm clock, which may have a negative impact on stress levels,” she writes.
The negative effects of turnover
Past studies have put the turnover rate in the early-childhood education field at about 30%, with higher rates among those working in community-based centers and lower rates for those working in school-based and district-run programs. Experts say secure attachments, including those with early educators, are an essential part of young children’s healthy growth and development.
“The quality of any early learning setting is directly related to the quality of their staff, their understanding of child development, and their ability to translate that understanding into positive interactions, securely attached relationships, and age-appropriate learning opportunities with children,” wrote the authors of 2016 report on the early-childhood workforce from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Education.
Kwon is seeking additional funding to continue the project and says the researchers are “closely working with participating centers and the state agency and discussing ways to promote teachers’ wellbeing.”
The team’s work adds to what researchers in other states have found on the health and wellbeing of those caring for and teaching young children. A 2017 North Carolina study, for example, looked at differences between early educators by income level and found lower-income providers were more likely to smoke, drink sugary beverages and report symptoms of depression.
In addition, a recent study focusing on Washington and Texas showed lower-wage childcare providers were more likely to work for centers that didn’t offer health-related benefits. They also found more than 40% of the 366 employees in the sample experienced food insecurity, compared to under 12% for the general population.
This work also comes as NORC at the University of Chicago is conducting an updated National Survey of Early Care and Education, which is funded by HHS and was last conducted in 2012. In addition to providing data on families’ access to childcare and early education across the U.S., researchers are asking questions about the characteristics of providers and what motivates them to work in the field. The first round of results is expected in March.
Along with the studies on health and mental health, the national survey will give directors and policymakers a more present-day view of the challenges of attracting and keeping early education professionals. The studies also suggest when leaders plan the layout and design of spaces in which young children learn, they should also consider how the environment works for the adults.
The link to qualifications
Most of the teachers in the Tulsa study planned to stay in their position. But Kwon found those with more education and who were rated as better teachers were more likely to report poorer physical wellbeing and “ergonomic pain.” They were also more likely to say they were considering leaving their jobs.
“This is concerning,” Kwon writes, “because teachers providing high-quality care are the very people we want to target in recruitment and retention efforts to build a high-quality workforce.”
Kwon and her team say solutions to improving workplace conditions for early educators can begin with tweaks, such as providing them space to store their belongings and more frequent breaks from the classroom. But they also recommend more substantial improvements, such as including adult-sized furniture in the classroom and offering yoga and other fitness programs.
The researchers in Washington and Texas suggest providing meals for teachers at their centers in order to address the needs of those struggling to buy their own food, and to allow them to model healthy eating habits for children.
They also note making mental health consultants available to providers — a practice recommended for reducing suspensions and expulsions among preschoolers — could benefit early educators.
“It is likely that interventions using such consultants may also improve the wellbeing of the workers by reducing stress and making their jobs easier,” they write, “but this hypothesis would need to be tested.”