By Molly Breen
As we walk this leg on the winding path of pandemic shifts, hopefully toward a more health-filled and balanced future, I know that I am experiencing serious fatigue. And not just the “If we can make it to (fill in the blank holiday), I’ll have time to recharge!”-type of fatigue that has come in waves over my twenty-plus years in the field.
No, this fatigue is of a different sort. It has been compounding over the past two years without pause; instead of waves that ebb and flow, with time to recover in between, this fatigue is determined to flatten me with its fortitude and insistent tempo. I often wonder: Are we on the brink of losing valuable and dedicated providers to burnout?
Historically, early childhood educator burnout rates have been high. This is most often due to low pay for the emotionally and physically intense work of caring for young children, often without benefits like health care, paid time off, and support for continuing education. But especially now, when many folks in the field can make a similar income working in retail (but with benefits!) and avoid the complicating features of pandemic teaching and learning, there is a real risk of a diminished workforce—in more ways than one. And it’s worse for educators of color who are paid even less than white educators.
There is a pathology to our career choices, according to research. Especially for those who choose to go into “helping professions” like teaching. In general, folks who choose helping professions have experienced some compound trauma or childhood trauma themselves. Our life experiences—good and bad—shape our skills, interests, worldviews, and biases. It stands to reason, then, that a child who did more caretaking of their parent (parentification), for example, would have an increased capacity for empathy and a greater resilience for working in emotionally charged environments. Another example from the report cites loss, such as divorce or the death of a loved one, as a motivator to choose a helping career. These early-life traumas contribute to a person’s cumulative narrative and to their ability to cope in the current stress-filled climate of the world and of our work. With or without additional pandemic stress, early childhood educators experience transfer of trauma from working with children and families who have a variety of needs and emotional wounds. But there is a way to balance the effects of these stressors and help prevent burnout.
Building awareness around what we are experiencing is an important first step in establishing routines for self-care and well-being that combat burnout and support our mental health. What’s that saying? We can’t manage what we don’t measure? While it is wonderful when our administrators and program leaders provide time for reflection and professional growth, the truth is that we alone are responsible for managing (and measuring) our well-being.
You can start by reflecting on this question: Why do I/did I choose to work in early child care and education? You can respond to this question in writing or reflect on it internally. For me, it’s something I think about often. And I keep retooling my response over time. This helps me gain clarity around my intentions and how I show up for the work.
Next, establish some self-care micro-practices based on what you like and what you need. That’s right, micro-practices. Even though self-care often sounds like a major effort, you can embed small acts of self-nurturing into your daily routines. For example, carve out “do nothing” moments throughout the day. Give yourself permission to stare out the window, let your mind wander, and do nothing for a minute or so during your break time, prep time, or while kids are resting.
Practice some mantras or positive self-talk for reassurance throughout the day:
- “I don’t have all the answers, but I have everything I need.”
- “Showing up as exactly who I am is enough.”
- “I am constantly learning and growing.”
These little phrases can actually change your neurobiology and help you feel more supported, calm, and grounded.
Get outside! Even just a little bit of fresh air each day makes a big positive impact on mental health. If you don’t go outside with your program or with your students (although hopefully this is not the case!), pop outside for some deep breaths and a good stretch. This stimulates the nervous system, activating the vagus nerve to signal the brain that you are safe.
Drink water throughout the day to stay hydrated. It’s easy to go hours without drinking anything when we are busy in the classroom and maybe even avoiding a bathroom break. But staying hydrated is a basic way to nurture physical well-being. Think of each sip as an act of self-love.
If you have capacity to incorporate some bigger practices, think about finding a licensed therapist for regular sessions. With the help of a professional, you can heal from past trauma, better understand the present, and open yourself up to deeper self-love and acceptance. Consider integrating regular walks or other low-impact exercise into your weekly routine. This is less about “working out” in the physical sense, and more about self-care and time to work out emotional stressors. Another worthy practice is meditation or daily mindfulness. You can start with just a few minutes, guided or not, and build over time. Consider using an app like Insight Timer to help you develop a practice.
All these suggestions begin with just one change: just one kind word to yourself, just one sip of water, just one deep breath. Making many sweeping changes all at once seldom has the staying power of incorporating incremental change. Remember: you are worthy of self-care, of reflection, of positive self-talk and nurturing.
If we are coming to the work of early childhood education with little in our personal “well” of well-being, how can we possibly provide nurturing support for the children with whom we work? And you don’t have to go at it alone! Invite a colleague to join you on your walks or advocate to your program director for systemic changes that support self-care. Why not? If this pandemic time has taught us anything, it is that we are connected in more ways than we realize and that we really do need one another for support, resources, and well-being. And, in the spirit of early learning, if we can model growth, resilience, curiosity, persistence, and other glorious character traits, we are teaching so much more than the planned curriculum.
Hang in there, dear teachers. We need you!
Molly 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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