Katie Dudley felt like she was regressing as a 4K (4 year old kindergarten) teacher. Her students, although technically the same age she taught year after year, behaved completely differently.
The reason was clear. Many parents told Dudley that being in her classroom was the first time their children had left the house or engaged with other children in two years — which happened to be half their lives.
“They were 2-year-olds when the world shut down (for the pandemic),” Dudley said. “I really had to shift the way I responded to their social and emotional needs. I felt like I was teaching a bunch of 2-year-olds in 4-year-olds’ bodies, and my experience is with 4-year-olds, not 2-year-olds.”
For the first time in her 10 years as a 4K teacher at the Bridges Child Enrichment Center in Appleton, she felt inadequate as an educator.
That regression is one of the many “ripple effects” of the pandemic, Dudley said. For those who work in early childhood education, these new stressors were heaped onto existing pressures, including demanding work for low pay, staffing shortages and a sometimes-overwhelming number of students.
Early childhood education teachers’ mental health creates its own ripple effects. Walter Gilliam, executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, said research shows teachers’ mental health can impact early childhood expulsion rates. He said boosting teachers’ mental health can dramatically reduce the number of those expulsions.
Groundbreaking 2005 research by Gilliam, who was then a professor of child psychiatry and psychology at Yale University, found the national rate of preschool expulsions — which included a variety of state-funded settings, including Head Starts, child care centers, school-based preschools and more — was three times that of K-12 schools. In Wisconsin, the rate of preschool expulsions was five times greater.
Later studies revealed preschool expulsions are still common. While current national data is being collected, Gilliam said anecdotal evidence suggests the practice is still widespread. Depression and stress in early childhood education teachers have soared since the beginning of the pandemic, as has the leading cause for these expulsions: challenging behaviors in young children.
Experts in the field know this as a recipe for disaster.
Many early childhood educators had poor mental health. The pandemic made it worse.
Before the pandemic, multiple studies suggested early childhood education professionals experienced “concerning” depression and stress levels. Both were at higher levels than the general working population, according to a May 2023 report co-authored by Gilliam, The Children’s Equity Project, Yale University and Oppenheim Consulting.
As detailed in this report, Gilliam led The Yale Children and Adults Research in Early Education Study (CARES) Team in collecting data from more than 126,000 early childhood education professionals at various points of the pandemic. The Yale CARES team found that, early on, 46% of professionals screened positive for major depression. That number jumped to 56% in 2021.
Stress in the field was so high, Gilliam said, workers’ physical health likely suffered, too.
“Lots of things predicted increasing depression and stress, including the impact of the pandemic on the children and families they serve, their own fears, loss of work hours and pay, and exposure to racialized aggression,” Gilliam said.
He added that the workforce is almost entirely made up of women, and many women of color, the latter of whom are dealt the heaviest blows of community aggression.
The high levels of depression and stress are not surprising to those in the field. It’s a demanding job for relatively little compensation, said Susan Steinhofer, an outreach navigator with First 5 Fox Valley, a community organization that supports early childhood.
In 2021, Wisconsin child care workers’ average wage was $12.36 per hour, according to the state’s Department of Workforce Development. And, according to advocacy group Raising Wisconsin, these professionals rarely have job-sponsored benefits. Some child care businesses were able to raise their wages because of pandemic-era supports — a survey of more than 600 providers found the average wage was $12.66 in 2022 — but with this funding set to run out early next year, these wages may not last.
By comparison, the living wage for a single adult with no dependents in Wisconsin is $16.06, according to MIT data.
“They are dealing with kids with issues and needs, they’re not getting paid enough, they know that they could get paid more working at a fast-food place, or a big box store. They could get benefits working at those places,” Steinhofer said. “And, most importantly, they wouldn’t have to touch somebody else’s boogers, or worse, other bodily fluids that come out. It’s amazing how juicy kids can be.”
These occasionally slimy factors contribute to the industry’s turnover rate of more than 40%.
When the pandemic hit, it brought unique stressors. While other businesses temporarily closed and schools transitioned online, child care programs stayed open, as they were necessary for essential workers. That also meant child care workers braved potential exposure to illness and carried the stress that came with such risk.
As a 4K teacher, Dudley quickly shifted her curriculum online — a mammoth feat when working with 4-year-olds — and then, eventually, she toggled between students whose families opted to stay remote and those who came back to the classroom.
Even as the rest of the world started to return to normal, her classroom looked very different from pre-pandemic times. One child in her classroom made a beeline for the bucket of toys, grabbed them and declared, “These are mine!” Like many others, this child was long deprived of opportunities to play with peers and never learned to share.
By age 3, engaging in interactive play is one of many typical milestones, according to Wisconsin Alliance for Infant Mental Health, but, as Dudley came to realize, she was working with very different 4-year-olds.
“Four-year-olds are not meant to do Zoom meetings,” Dudley said, explaining that, while they made remote learning work, children do best with hands-on learning. “How do you teach? How do you read a story? It was really sad — this is what their first school experience looked like.”
What can be done?
Bridges is one center that’s trying to improve the situation.
Every month — and more if needed — Dudley has a reflective practice session with a clinical therapist at Catalpa Health, an Appleton-based pediatric mental health organization. Through a partnership with Bridges, multiple Catalpa therapists hold weekly office hours at Bridges, allowing teachers and staff access to free on-site mental health services.
At a recent session, Dudley unpacked her feelings of inadequacy when teaching this new batch of children. The regression she saw had started to feel less like a symptom of the pandemic and more of a reflection of her abilities as a teacher.
There’s more to these sessions than talking about classroom struggles, though. Amy Morrissey, one of the therapists and an early childhood mental health consultant, said she often talks with Bridges teachers about personal experiences they face.
“There’s a lot coming into the classroom,” Morrissey said. “Kids are experiencing a lot. Families are experiencing a lot. We’re still trying to process the impact of the pandemic. We’re all trying to right ourselves again.”
Catalpa staff can help teachers at Bridges by helping its children, too.
With parents’ permission, Catalpa therapists can observe a struggling child’s behavior in the classroom and identify possible supports — and can even work with children through family therapy on-site at Bridges.
Bridges employs a behavior specialist as another support for teachers when addressing the needs of students with challenging behaviors. Amy Holtz, a Bridges teacher in a 3- to 5-year-old classroom, said the behavior specialist helps her by examining the strategies she uses with those children, and ensuring teachers aren’t taking on the extra load of supporting these students alone.
Holtz said Bridges also builds in “work days” twice a month so teachers have adequate prep and cleaning time and don’t need to bring as much work home.
The center also staffs its classrooms beyond the state minimum teacher-to-child ratio requirements to meet children’s individual needs and reduce stress and teacher burnout. Experts see this as a crucial step to warding off expulsions: the more students per teacher, the higher the expulsion rate, Gilliam found.
“We work for a building that doesn’t just support children’s mental health, but ours as well,” Holtz said. “It’s not the norm; you’re not going to find employers (elsewhere) who truly care about you and your family.”
Madison Lammert covers child care and early education across Wisconsin as a Report for America corps member based at The Appleton Post-Crescent. To contact her, email [email protected] or call 920-993-7108. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to Report for America.
Natalie Eilbert covers mental health issues for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. She welcomes story tips and feedback. You can reach her at [email protected] or view her Twitter profile at @natalie_eilbert. If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “Hopeline” to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.
This article first appeared on Wisconsin Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.