Professional Development in Early Childhood Education: Combating Burnout During the Pandemic

By Molly Breen

Professional Development in Early Childhood Education: Combating Burnout During the PandemicThe weight and strain of the pandemic has stretched most of us beyond what we thought was our limit. We have bowed and bent; we’ve pivoted until we’ve worn out the soles of our shoes. We may be at our breaking or burnout point. It feels like enough just to get through the days with kids and families, softening the strain of pandemic life, without adding in the typical requirements of early care. Although most regulatory agencies have allowed some temporary program modifications, the requirements for professional development can feel like a burden right now.

But it’s all virtual!
You can take classes from people all over the world!
You should embrace the opportunity!

These statements may all be true, but many of us are feeling overworked and overwhelmed. (And with good reason! Early care and education providers are the heartbeat of the US economy.) When we’re exhausted and Zoomed out, the last thing we want to do is log into a virtual training session—even if it’s a unique opportunity with a specialist from another country.

Provider burnout in ECE is real.

Burnout, quite literally, means to wear out the nervous system with large amounts of stress and anxiety—in this instance, due to workload and managing the traumatic impacts of the pandemic. Burnout can lead to illness, depression, and ultimately leaving the field. In the United States, on average, teachers leave the profession at an astonishing rate of 8 percent per year. That’s hundreds of thousands of teachers each year, and only about a third are leaving to retire, according to research.

Although professional development can help combat burnout in the long run, in the short term we need sustainable daily practices to keep our heads and hearts clear. Whether you are an administrator or working in the classroom, these tools can help you stay attuned, connected, and grateful for the work we do each day—pandemic or not.

1. Establish a Daily Reflective Practice

You might be thinking, “I’m not going to add in another thing!” But no matter what, teachers are required to reflect in at least two ways daily: (1) IN action and (2) ON action. IN-action reflections are the daily decisions we make with finesse based upon wisdom, experience, and knowledge. ON-action reflections happen after the fact—sometimes when we are talking with a colleague or maybe just on the drive home. ON-action reflections may require us to dig a little deeper, seek out help or resources (like peer-reviewed articles or other credible research), and grow in our practice.

Journal: Make your daily reflections intentional! You can write down a few things you notice each day. Don’t forget to include the good stuff; all too often we reflect only on what we want to change or do differently or better. Find opportunities to express gratitude for the work in addition to expressing the challenges.

Make time for conversations with colleagues: Anecdotally reflecting with peers can help us turn our experiences into learning. It is important to seek out dialogue, and we can make this an intentional practice. Make a weekly or monthly check-in time or call with teaching colleagues to share your experiences, ask for feedback, and to grow in your collective wisdom.

2. Make Time to Regulate

Breathe: It’s the oldest trick in the regulating book, right? Our breath helps calm the nervous system and establish a felt sense of safety. Try doing a simple breathing pattern (all through the nose, if possible): breathe in for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of two, breath out for a count of six. Repeat this at least four times (or more if possible). You don’t have to wait until you are feeling stressed; make this practice part of your daily routine during transition times or when you are outdoors.

Attunement: When we are in the midst of a busy day with children and washing our hands for the four-hundredth time, it’s possible that we lose track of how we, the teachers, are feeling. It’s important to check in with ourselves about our state to ensure that we can regulate and show up authentically with our students. Here are some simple questions to ask ourselves: What does my body feel like right now (tense, relaxed, agitated, fatigued)? What is my self-talk right now (beliefs, attitudes, messaging loops replaying in my brain)?

Witness and respond: As part of the cycle of attunement, we can do our best to objectively witness our state and then respond. Again, this can happen in all our daily routines—the transitions, the good times, and the challenging times. Witness your answers to the attunement questions above and then respond with action. Maybe you need a giant drink of water, or to roll your shoulders and neck to release tension; perhaps a nice, big yawn and stretch or audible sigh (a great way to release tension, by the way) would do the trick. When we are responsive to our own needs, we can better respond to the many needs of the kids with whom we work.

3. Keep It Relational!

Humans are wired for connection and relationship. And so we, as teachers, must remember to care for and nurture our connection to ourselves in addition to our connection with students.

Being relational calls us back to core values in our approach to our students, our colleagues, and ourselves, such as practicing compassion, respect, inclusivity, and humility.

When we all do better, we all do better! For teachers, this means we can do our best to avoid transactional interactions that feel like we are going through the motions and instead favor of more meaningful and connected experiences. This focus is good for us and good for our students.

I don’t mean to discourage anyone from seeking out professional development now, during the pandemic, or anytime. On the contrary: I can’t get enough of best practices and emergent research findings for ECE (and I enthusiastically recommend these online trainings through Penn State). But I do believe we must nurture ourselves both within our hearts and our heads to avoid burnout. So, next time you review your required hours for PD and feel the weight of obligation on your shoulders, I encourage you to reflect, regulate, and relate for your best professional development.

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.

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