Originally published December 20, 2021

Though exacerbated by the pandemic, turnover in early childhood education is not a new phenomenon. In 2012, the Institute of Medicine & National Research Council reported early childhood settings turnover rates averaging between 25-30 percent. Some pre-pandemic studies indicate it could be even higher, at a startling 26-50% turnover rate. The pandemic has compounded the already present challenge and has made the headlines as our country grapples with the realization that a healthy childcare system is critical to our economic recovery.

We hear from administrators, directors, and owners across the country as they share why hiring and retaining quality early childhood educators is challenging. In fact, we talked at length about these workforce challenges in a recent episode of Impacting the Classroom. And one thing we all agree on is this: the compensation provided to educators in early childhood is not a reasonable living wage.

This one driving challenge is more openly talked about than ever before, something that is welcome as we all double our efforts to advocate for systemic change in our field. As one study shares, “...educator wage is the strongest predictor of center-level turnover across early childhood centers.

Beyond pay, what other factors drive high turnover rates in our field? Often, survey data is targeted toward the people hiring, and the educators’ voices aren’t always present. Studies that include input from the educators who leave the field are more balanced and provide the most insight beyond the focus on wages. Some states, such as Illinois and Colorado, are looking into workplace quality. At the same time, the data about early childhood educators’ well-being is being considered, as many early childhood educators are experiencing depressive symptoms.

What we are learning is a call to action for early childhood leaders. Early childhood educators are under duress. Research shows that when educators are feeling depressive symptoms, they are more likely to report child behavior problems in their classrooms. This is significant because behavior challenges are another reason educators leave the classroom.

While systemic change is needed, we can, as leaders, consider what changes we can make within our circle of influence.

Using Interactions to Support Educators

A tangible culture shift we can make in our centers and classrooms is to embrace a parallel process. The meaningful interactions we coach our educators to adopt in their daily work can also apply to our adult-to-adult interactions between leaders and peers.

Early childhood educators call out specific needs, and we can wrap those into our CLASS® lens and make a culture shift in the process. In addition to financial rewards and compensation, Whitebook (2011) shared that early childhood educators need:

      • A workplace that is a learning environment where educators can reflect on and discuss their work. By creating a positive climate and engaging in sensitive interactions that build trust and feel safe, we can build a platform for our teachers to discuss their practices thoughtfully and bring questions and frustrations forward as they seek help and guidance.

      • A workplace where educators feel empowered to make changes as they learn new strategies and skills. By practicing regard for educator perspectives, we can build opportunities for autonomy and leadership, give educators a feeling of choice and ownership, and show that we value educators’ ideas and opinions.

      • A workplace that has the resources necessary for adult well-being. As leaders, we can be sensitive and tuned in to our educators. We can step in and help hold an infant, show up as an extra hand during a chaotic lunch routine, and be present to give adequate breaks. We can provide resource information for mental health support. Our physical environment and routines can include comfortable spaces for adults to relax for a bit and a place of their own to feel a sense of belonging.

Whitebook shares that the well-being of adults in early childhood settings—their living and working conditions—is an essential determinant of how well children will do. And everything can mimic what we have learned about educator and child interactions in our adult-to-adult interactions. Educators report that despite the challenges in their daily work, they care deeply about children. Kwon, Malek, et al., (2020) state that many educators go into the field knowing they are not well-paid or respected. But they want to stay because their work is rewarding and meaningful! That sentiment is inspiring, and we should find ways to honor our educators daily.


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