Report: Do Early Learning Teachers Have Enough Psychological Support?

early childhood learning programs

Among the many factors that influence the success or failure of early childhood learning programs, one priority clearly is the teachers.

What do those teachers need? Ensuring that early learning educators are equipped with the proper skills and training is one aspect. But is it enough?

That’s what researchers sought to discover and explain through the recent report “Supporting the Psychological Well-Being of the Early Care and Education Workforce: Findings from the National Survey of Early Care and Education.” The paper was compiled for the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

As the report notes: “In 2012, about one-quarter of American children under age five attended center-based early care and education (ECE) at least five hours per week. The one million teachers and caregivers working with these children can support children’s social and emotional development and early academic skills through their daily interactions.”

“Caring for children is an important task, but can be challenging and exhausting. Research suggests that an ECE workforce that is mentally healthy can provide the best-quality care for children and reduce the likelihood of problem behavior in the classroom. While many efforts to improve the quality of ECE have focused on increasing teachers’ and caregivers’ competencies and knowledge specific to the teaching of young children, a small body of research suggests that supporting caregivers’ psychological well-being may also be a worthy goal.”

The authors used a national survey of ECE teachers to understand “linkages between various workforce supports and teachers’ psychological well-being. For example, do formal supports such as coaching and low child-teacher ratios support psychological well-being in the ECE workforce?”

The Findings

Fewer than one in ten center-based ECE teachers have moderate psychological distress, and less than one percent have serious distress.

  • On a scale from 0–24, the average distress score of teachers in our sample was 2.6.
  • ECE teachers were less likely than the general population of adult females to experience serious psychological distress.

Teachers had less psychological distress when they experienced teamwork, respect, and stability at work.

  • When we examined several predictors of ECE teachers’ psychological distress simultaneously, teachers with certain demographic characteristics had significantly more distress:
    • Teachers with a high school education or less
    • Asian teachers
    • Teachers with lower household incomes
  • Of the formal workforce supports considered (group size/ratio, availability of coaching/mentoring, financial support for professional development, substantive supervision, stable classroom assignments), only stable classroom assignments were significantly associated with lower levels of psychological distress:
    • Teachers who had been moved to another classroom or assigned to a different group of children at least once in the past week had significantly more psychological distress than teachers with more stable work assignments.
  • Several informal workforce supports significantly predicted teachers’ psychological distress,even when accounting for teachers’ background characteristics, the program’s funding source, and classroom age group:
    • Teachers who perceived that teamwork was encouraged in their program had significantly less psychological distress than teachers who perceived less encouragement of teamwork.
    • Teachers who felt respected in the child care center had significantly less psychological distress than those who felt less respect.


The authors provide the following recommendations:

“While our findings are not causal, they suggest that ECE programs with a supportive and rewarding workplace climate may be beneficial for ECE teachers’ psychological health. Programs and research should further explore aspects of workplace climate, including teamwork and respect, as well as a broader range of possible supports and practices to strengthen social connections and esteem among employees. Finally, programs and future research should explore a range of practices or conditions that may alleviate financial or material stressors for teachers, given our finding that teachers with higher household incomes had lower levels of psychological distress.”

Researchers can further illuminate this topic in the following ways:

  • Continue to explore whether, and under what circumstances, psychological distress in the ECE workforce may negatively impact children’s well-being.
  • Capitalize on longitudinal study designs to understand how various workforce supports,teachers’ psychological distress, and employment status (e.g., exiting the workforce) are related over time.
  • Identify predictors of psychological distress among home-based ECE teachers and caregivers.


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