Study: Low Pay Is Tip of the Iceberg for Early Childhood Educators’ Hardships

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From fear of physical harm to financial woes, the reality of early childhood educators is one of love for the work conflicting with burnout and stress. (Illustration by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

Lieny Jeon’s question was simple, but it brought them to tears.

Once Jeon, the Jane Batten Bicentennial Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education in the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development, decided to research the psychological and physical wellbeing of early childhood educators, she started contacting those who would be participating in her study.

Just asking why they chose their jobs and, more importantly, the hardships involved, sometimes brought the educators to tears.

“More than once, when I explained my study to recruit them, they began to cry,” 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 child care teacher wellbeing, including funds for research.”

During the past several years, federal and state governments increased their monetary investment in early childhood education – and in research into early education. In March, the White House released the 2023 Economic Report of the President, which dedicated an entire chapter to early childhood education and cited several research studies conducted by faculty and alumni of the UVA School of Education and Human Development.

That report includes studies about the psychological wellbeing of child care providers, including the impacts of chronically low pay and pandemic stresses.

And yet, according to Jeon, many early childhood educators continue to feel unseen.

Motivators and Stressors: A Day in The Life

Jeon’s research focuses primarily on providers in Head Start, a federally funded program that serves mostly children from families at or below the poverty level.

Portrait of Lieny Jeon
Lieny Jeon, professor of early childhood education in UVA’s School of Education and Human Development, hopes her research will help improve the wellbeing of early childhood educators. (Photo by Tom Daly)

The workforce is disproportionally comprised of women of color, especially Black women, who says they are overwhelmingly motivated by a love of young children and a desire to give back to their communities, according to Jeon’s research.

But the heartfelt motivation is met with significant stressors, both physical and psychological.

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

On average, 2-year-old children weigh between 26 and 27 pounds and are typically not yet potty trained. Even with a federally required ratio of four children to one adult, a teacher may be lifting children more than a dozen times per day, just for diaper changes.

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

While many consider the unmet nutritional needs of their young students, the educators’ food insecurities are less obvious physical stressors. 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.

Other programs, Jeon explains, might have family-style meals where everyone is required to eat the same thing, with no options for dietary restrictions.

Jeon found that teachers’ desire to be with their students is regularly interrupted by increasing amounts of paperwork required for compliance, monitoring, and tracking developmental milestones. Teachers reported to Jeon that they spend 50% of their time on paperwork.

Supporting Teachers’ Resilience and Changing Systems

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 teachers, but at the same time address problematic policies and procedures.

The program Jeon developed, Wellbeing First, is designed to build each teacher’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 child care center. In addition to stress management toolkits and professional development, the program provides group processing time and monthly consulting.

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 teachers with sticky notes and ask them to sort stressors that are within their control from stressors outside of their control,” Jeon said. “And there are so many that come outside of their control.”

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

Teachers also have concerns about their physical safety outside of the classroom. In the major U.S. city where Jeon is conducting her research, many Head Start classrooms are in neighborhoods with high crime rates.

“These teachers are also regularly experiencing secondary trauma,” Jeon said. “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.”

Media Contact

Audrey Breen

Assistant Director of Communications School of Education and Human Development