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The Stress, Mental Health, and Well-Being of Early Childhood Educators

By Christopher Collen, SproutFive; Jaclyn Dynia, SproutFive's Center for Early Childhood Innovation; and Randi Bates, College of Nursing, University of Cincinnati


Early childhood represents a critical period for development and growth, which can significantly impact children’s lives. Early childhood educators are central in supporting the development of many young children. However, the health and well-being of educators is often neglected, and they likely experience high levels of stress. Further, meeting the needs of children is becoming increasingly challenging, and high-quality early childhood education relies on educators being able to manage their stress and engage positively with their young students.


Why are Early Childhood Educators Vulnerable to Stress?


Low wages are among the most salient stressors influencing early educators’ high stress. The early childhood workforce is among the least compensated professions in the United States. Even with extensive education and experience, educators’ hourly wages are persistently inadequate. Hence, educators often do not earn enough to pay for basic necessities such as housing payments, food, and health care. Staff shortages, high turnover rates, budget constraints, lack of resources, and feelings of under-appreciation further compound educators’ stress.


Educators may also be more vulnerable to these stressors if they experience adverse childhood experiences such as abuse or neglect. Adverse childhood experiences are associated with an increased risk for the top two leading causes of death in the United States – heart disease and cancer.


New Research on Early Childhood Educators’ Stressors and Stress


A recent study led by Randi Bates, an assistant professor in nursing at the University of Cincinnati, and Jaclyn Dynia, Executive Director of SproutFive’s Center for Early Childhood Innovation, examined the stress and stressors of 67 center-based early childhood educators in Fall 2021. Educators completed surveys about their stress, economic hardship, food insecurity, and adverse childhood experiences. Questions on economic hardship included whether the educator could afford housing payments. Educators also provided hair samples to measure the stress hormone cortisol.


Research Findings


Compared to previously published work, the research team found that early childhood educators were highly stressed and had high levels of economic hardship, food insecurity, and adverse childhood experiences.

 

Regarding stress:

 

  • About 41% of the educators met the criteria for Generalized Anxiety Disorder. These anxiety levels in the study were more than double the pre-pandemic estimates of adults in the United States.

  • Over 63% of the educators met the diagnostic criteria for Major Depressive Disorder, nearly double the rate for adults across the United States.

  • Around 41% of educators likely experienced both Generalized Anxiety and Major Depressive disorder.

  • Education may have served as a protective factor against educators’ stress. Educators who held a bachelor’s degree or higher experienced significantly lower levels of stress than colleagues with lower education.   

 

Regarding life stressors:


  • About 23% of educators experienced economic hardship or food insecurity in the past three months. This rate is more than double the national rate of 10.2%.

  • About 34% experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences.


It Takes a Village


Many simple actions can support early childhood educators and help improve the early childhood education industry, which directly impacts society’s most precious asset - children. These actions include, but are not limited to:


  • Improve access to affordable and confidential mental health services for early childhood educators. These services may include counseling, psychotherapy, medication management, stress management programs, and peer support initiatives.

  • Strengthen efforts to break the stigma surrounding mental health. This will help normalize seeking mental health services and promote community support to facilitate healing.

  • Build community support for early childhood educators and their substantial impact on children's well-being by increasing community awareness.

  • Nurture early childhood educators’ well-being by facilitating professional development and higher education opportunities.

  • Lower educators’ stress by helping improve working conditions through reducing class sizes, retaining adequate staffing, increasing compensation, and offering flexible schedules to attend to health needs.

  • Promote school cultures of motivation, encouragement, positivity, and appreciation.


In sum, early childhood educators are likely facing significant financial, mental health, and living challenges. The high rates of mental health struggles among early childhood educators should not be accepted as a norm. These stress-related difficulties can also have a negative impact on the well-being of young children aged from birth to five years old. Early childhood educators play a crucial role in shaping children's futures, and they deserve proper support and investment.

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