Expert advice on establishing caring workplaces that support educator wellbeing
Dr Madeleine Dobson from Curtin University recently spoke with the New South Wales Department of Education, giving suggestions on how to set educators up for success by creating caring workplace environments to support educator wellbeing.
There are many challenges educators may encounter while working in early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings which can impact on their wellbeing, Dr Dobson said, outlining that services which are able to navigate these challenges in caring and collaborative ways can create safer and stronger ECEC environments.
Not only does that lead to stronger staff retention, and deeper relationships for children and families, it also supports services to meet their obligations under Quality Area 4.1 of the National Quality Standard (NQS), which focuses on staffing arrangements to enhance children’s learning and development.
When educators are experiencing stress, fatigue, or burnout, this can impact on their capacity to interact with children, or it may inhibit quality interactions, Dr Dobson explained. Feelings of failure in this space can worsen the challenges educators are facing, by creating an additional burden of anxiety and stress. This can lead to complete burnout and departure from services and the profession.
Educators who feel a strong sense of wellbeing are in the best position to care for children and support them in their learning and development, she continued. This is also a safeguard and stronghold with relation to educator retention and can support services to sustain their teams over time.
“By caring for educators and protecting their wellbeing, we can ensure they are set up for success in their interactions with children and in other dimensions of their work as well,” Dr Dobson said.
Understanding the educator role
The work undertaken by educators is multi-faceted and complex, and can create a range of overlapping demands. There is opportunity to set educators up for success across these many and varied demands, with potential for this to be a shared endeavour.
One of the most integral factors, Dr Dobson notes, is creating a workplace environment where staff relationships are premised on trust, openness, and solidarity. These types of relationships contribute to a shared feeling of safety and security, which enhances educator wellbeing.
“Often, staff relationships are make or break – educators who are struggling note stress and tension caused by fractured relationships with colleagues, whereas educators with positive collegial relationships cite this as a stronghold of their wellbeing.”
Therefore, she continued, a focus point for services should be “understanding the relational dynamics between staff and investing in team-building initiatives”.
“By actively working to create caring and enduring working relationships between all colleagues, wellbeing can be protected and sustained.”
“Looking more broadly at relationships, the ways in which educators connect with families are also critically important. These relationships can be challenging and are often cited as a source of stress and anxiety for educators.”
Services, she said, can support educators by “acknowledging and empathising with the educators’ experiences, and by providing mentoring and support to help educators navigate the challenges they are facing.”
“This also relates to the importance of strong collegial relationships within services – many educators feel they benefit from professional conversations about engaging with families and caring mentorship from leaders, as well as opportunities to engage in professional learning and development (PL&D).”
Educators can also be set up for success through ongoing engagement in quality and meaningful PL&D. Creating opportunities for agency in this space can make a huge difference – for example, by taking a consultative and collaborative approach to planning PL&D opportunities, and by inviting and responding to feedback from educators about their experiences of PL&D.
Nurturing a culture of thoughtful, purposeful, and reflective engagement in PL&D can also contribute to educators feeling empowered and inspired in their ongoing development.
A continued focus on raising the status of ECEC and its educators is also key, Dr Dobson explained.
“The lack of respect afforded to the sector and its staff contributes significantly to stress and burnout. Ongoing advocacy for the significant and complex work which is undertaken in ECEC environments, by both those within the sector and colleagues and community beyond, should be seen as essential.”
Creating caring environments
ECEC environments are envisioned as inherently caring, with a strong focus on nurturing children and compassionate ways of being. There is potential for these environments to create a sense of belonging for all, to be both comforting and empowering, and to build and sustain resilience, Dr Dobson said.
Despite this, the mechanics of creating a universally caring environment can be complex.
A key risk exists where care is perceived as one-way – for example, where educators feel they provide care to families or colleagues which is not returned.
“This is something for services to hold in mind and reflect on: is care reciprocal? If not, what can we do to reassure educators that they are cared for? What can be done to create lasting transformation in this space?”
Educators who feel cared for in their workplace often signal that they feel encouraged to reach out. They work with leaders and colleagues who believe in the importance of connectedness, check in regularly, and understand the value of seeking help and support. Services can contribute to this by creating an open and trusting culture where staff feel safe to share, and by working to reduce stigma around mental health.
As well as possessing close and supportive personal networks, educators who have a strong sense of wellbeing have professional networks that extend beyond their immediate service. This is something that services can foster and facilitate, by encouraging membership in professional organisations and creating connections to broader networks of educators. Building a more expansive sense of belonging and connectedness can strengthen the sense of care within services and support educators’ overall wellbeing and resilience.
“It is also important that everyone – every educator and leader, every child, and every child’s family – feels cared for,” Dr Dobson continued.
This calls for recognition of, and respect for, diversity and difference, which deserve to be honoured meaningfully in services. By embracing pedagogies and leadership models premised on principles of social justice, services can build communities that truly care.
Finally, the creation of caring environments requires sustained focus, effort, and reflection. This reflection should be both individual (Do I feel cared for? How do I show care?) and collective (How do we care for each other? How can we work together to create a stronger sense of care?), with services creating opportunities for open dialogue. This openness can reinforce that all voices are valued, and that care itself is treasured by the service.
“By creating caring environments where everyone can thrive, we can support educators to stay and set them up for success, and in doing so, we can work together to ensure that all children have the best possible opportunity to belong, learn, and flourish,” she said in closing.
More insight about wellbeing for educators in ECEC settings may be found here.