UV research explores how educators are faring
The Sector > Research > University of Virginia research explores psychological and physical wellbeing of educators

University of Virginia research explores psychological and physical wellbeing of educators

by Freya Lucas

April 20, 2023
Children are shown in the sunshine using playground equipment

For University of Virginia researcher Lieny Jeon, the realisation that a simple question “what are some of the hardships involved in your job?” could bring early childhood educators to tears was a strong sign that her research topic, exploring the psychological and physical wellbeing of educators, was much needed. 


“More than once, when I explained my study to recruit them, they began to cry,” Ms Jeon said. “One told me that I was the first person to ask about their work and life.”


“No one was looking at teacher wellbeing 10 years ago,” she said. “Thankfully, that has changed. We’re seeing more federal investments in early childcare teacher wellbeing, including funds for research.”


While Ms Jeon’s research focuses on the United States, her findings and experience mirrors closely that of Australia, particularly around the psychological wellbeing of early childhood providers, including the impacts of chronically low pay and pandemic stresses.


Her research focuses primarily on providers in Head Start, a federally funded program that serves mostly children from families at or below the poverty level. The workforce which educates and cares for children enrolled in Head Start programs is disproportionately composed of women of color, especially Black women, who say they are “overwhelmingly motivated by a love of young children and a desire to give back to their communities,” according to Ms Jeon’s research.


It’s this heartfelt motivation which leads to significant stress, both physical and psychological, for educators. 


“When we consider the physical demands of the job, we can start with the size of the furniture in these rooms,” Ms Jeon said. “The adults are sitting in very small chairs, squatting and doing a lot of lifting.”


“There are so many physically taxing parts of this job,” she continued. “The teachers have very limited use of the restroom. And young children can also cause physical harm, like hitting, kicking or biting.”


The food insecurities and challenges of children in these programs are well known, however Ms Jeon said few consider the challenges educators face. Living with food insecurity outside of work can make meals during the workday complicated.


“Some teachers may handle so many different tasks during student mealtime that they must eat their own meals during small breaks, like nap times. But nap time can be anything but quiet time; some children may not sleep or have other needs,” she shared.


As in the Australian context, Ms Jeon found that educators’ desire to be with their students is regularly interrupted by increasing amounts of paperwork required for compliance, monitoring, and tracking developmental milestones. Those who responded to the survey reported to Ms Jeon that they spend 50 per cent of their time on paperwork.


Using the findings to make significant change


Ms Jeon’s goal is to identify ways to improve the wellbeing of early childhood educators. She recently developed an intervention system that includes an activity that shows the need to not just support individual educators, but at the same time address problematic policies and procedures.


The program she developed, Wellbeing First, is designed to build each educator’s capacity to overcome feelings of disempowerment and to regulate their emotions. It is also designed to help create a culture of wellbeing across each early childhood education and care (ECEC) setting. In addition to stress management toolkits and professional development, the program provides group processing time and monthly consulting.


Ms Jeon is testing the Wellbeing First program at 11 Head Start sites and hopes to have the results of her study within the year.


“At the start, we provide educators with sticky notes and ask them to sort stressors that are within their control from stressors outside of their control,” she explained. “And there are so many that come outside of their control.”


Low pay is often cited as a top-ranking reason early childcare providers leave the workforce, but those low wages are not the top indicator of teachers’ wellbeing, Ms Jeon found. Her research identifies the top three common stressors as physical safety concerns, students’ challenging behaviour and paperwork.


“These teachers are also regularly experiencing secondary trauma,” she continued. “Because they tend to be deeply connected to their students and families, they carry significant levels of worry home with them that can often interrupt their sleep.”


Follow Ms Jeon’s work here.

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