A Moment with Dr. Moore

January 26, 2022

Minding Our Teachers’ Mental Health

COVID has led to a mental health crisis among our children. The U.S. Surgeon General called attention to this “urgent public health issue” in a recent report. At the University of Oregon, Dr. Phil Fisher and his research team tracked child well-being since the onset of the pandemic. The report they produced showed that mental distress in children has more than doubled. And Yale professor Dr. Walter Gilliam also raised the alarm when he surveyed 50,000 preschool teachers across the country. He showed that 56 percent of teachers found children to be more aggressive, contrary or hyperactive than they used to be, and 55 percent found children more anxious, withdrawn or shy.

Nationwide, it’s a familiar story. Children are showing signs of trauma caused by disruptions to normal routines, social isolation, declines in household income and loss of loved ones, as experts point out. “I’ve had to remind people every single day that we’re still in a worldwide pandemic,” said Kyle Ohl, a mental health consultant for the Grand Beginnings early childhood council, based in Granby, Colorado. Often, Ohl said, small children act out—whether by hitting a friend, hiding under a table or howling when parents leave them at child care—because they’re feeling overwhelmed and insecure. “What’s interesting is we’ve always had these kids. It’s just that there’s more of them right now.” And that’s tricky for early childhood teachers who are now also dealing with outsized stress.

The pandemic compounded the challenges of a job that’s already low paying and hard, making many early childhood teachers feel anxious and overwhelmed, too. The current dilemma in preschools is not just about what COVID did to the children, it’s also about how it affected teachers, according to Angela Capone, vice president of early education at Para Los Niňos, which oversees seven Head Start and Early Head Start preschools in Los Angeles County, California. Teachers had unstable and scary working conditions, she recalled. “We were open and then closed. We had 84 instances where we closed classrooms and schools, or kids wouldn’t come to school because they might have been exposed to COVID or tested positive for COVID. The fear of what COVID could bring greatly affected our teachers.”

And data from recent surveys across the country shows that Capone’s teachers aren’t unique. In Nebraska, 70 percent of educators in family child care homes and centers said they felt negative or anxious about the future. In Massachusetts, 60 percent of educators in child care centers said COVID had a negative impact on their mental health. In Louisiana, 29 percent of early educators at child care centers and Head Start showed symptoms of clinical depression—and these teachers’ mental issues are cause for deep concern. When teachers feel down, it’s harder for them to form the bonds with young learners that are the heartbeat of the ECE profession.

Educators are also worried about how to support children when they, themselves, are feeling scared and stressed out. “The extra time spent planning, cleaning and distancing leaves me exhausted every day,” one Virginia educator said. And the constant risk of catching COVID is another big concern. “Every day, I have fears about how to keep my family safe from the outside virus coming into my home, but I need to continue so that I can still pay my bills,” said a family child care provider from Arizona. At Kidango, a large, California provider, “we have teachers with family members who have gotten sick and died. They have their own fears and concerns,” said Tena Sloan, who runs the mental health program at Kidango, a nonprofit that partners with Head Start. Together, they provide 4,000 children with a wide range of services that address everything from good nutrition to quality learning and behavioral needs.

Head Start has a deep concern for mental health, as I saw during my many years as a leader with the program. Federally funded Head Start programs, like those run by Kidango, provide mental health consultations that benefit both children and teachers. During these consultations, mental health professionals visit early childhood classrooms and meet with teachers to discuss challenging behaviors and other concerns. The main goal of the consultations is to support the mental health of the teachers, who often use the visits to work through personal feelings of frustration, so they’re better equipped to respond to children’s needs. At the end of the day, caring adults play the key role in helping children recover from trauma. So, how can we enable teachers, who are having their own personal and professional stressors, to create safe, soothing environments for children?

More child care programs are searching for answers to that question, according to Heidi Whitney, who manages an early childhood mental health consultation program in Denver. Ever since the pandemic began, she’s seen more interest from child care centers in reflective practice groups where teachers get together with a facilitator to talk about their trials and triumphs at work. The groups give educators a chance to vent about how hard things are or why a toddler’s biting habit triggered them more than usual. “When we talk about it outside of that situation,” Whitney explained, “the teacher can go back in more aware of how they’re managing their own feelings.” And the benefits trickle down to young learners. That’s because teachers who feel composed and calm can connect better with children who’ve suffered trauma.

The number of children like this has surged because COVID has ripped through millions of families like a tornado. It’s led to a perfect storm of issues, especially for low-income families like those I served at Head Start. Parents have lost their jobs, homelessness has grown, domestic violence is on the rise, depression is common and family members are dying. Children, like sponges, have absorbed the chaos around them and the trauma they’ve gone through has filled the news. There’s less talk of the many early childhood teachers who’ve faced similar problems and need to first help themselves before they can help young learners. Children need close ties with teachers if they are to feel confident and learn. A teacher who is fully present can open the world up for children—and fill them with hope instead of the heartache COVID has caused. So, we must mind our teachers’ mental health. With the right resources and support, they can help our children heal.


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