Start Early. Start well.

April 07, 2017

Symposium Puts Well-Being of Early Childhood Workforce in the Spotlight

Omaha, Neb. — A national symposium hosted by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute focused on research and practical strategies for supporting the well-being of the early childhood workforce.

“The Importance of Well-Being for Early Care and Education Providers” featured presentations from national and local experts on stress and well-being in the early care and education workforce. The early childhood workforce faces a number of circumstances that can contribute to poor mental health and well-being, including poverty-level wages, substandard working conditions, and lack of opportunities for training and advancement. Depression, stress, and other mental health conditions commonly reported by early childhood professionals can affect the quality of care young children receive.

The half-day symposium was hosted in February in cooperation with the National Academy of Medicine’s (NAM) Innovation to Incubation Program, which brings together state teams and national organizations to discuss opportunities and barriers to implementing recommendations of the recent consensus report Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation. A state team from Nebraska is participating in the Innovation to Incubation Program as part of a cohort of states including Colorado and Minnesota.

Susan Sarver, director of workforce planning and development for the Buffett Institute and leader of Nebraska’s NAM team, told just over 100 people who had gathered in Omaha for the symposium: “We realized as states began putting their plans together, one thing we haven’t heard about is caregiver well-being. You all know. You’re in this, you’re working with people in the field. You know how hard this is."



  • Our Early Care and Education Workforce: Stress, Well-Being, and Promising Directions in Research and Practice, Marjorie Kostelnik and Kathleen Gallagher
    Presentation slides | Video
  • Exploring Well-Being for Nebraska's Early Care and Education Workforce, Susan Sarver and Amy Roberts
    Presentation slides | Video
  • Reaction From a National Perspective, Marica Cox Mitchell
    Presentation slides | Video

Marjorie Kostelnik, dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, served on the committee that authored the consensus report.

“I have had a humbling experience these past two years” since the IOM report was written, she said. She knows that many early childhood professionals qualify for free or reduced school lunches for their own children. Also, “We talk a lot about great training but turnover in the population is so high. Out of 50 people I trained last year, five are left. These are people who need our support and our respect.”

"What is Well-Being?"

Kathleen Gallagher, the Cille and Ron Williams Community Chair in Early Childhood Education at the University of Nebraska-Kearney and the Buffett Institute, presented “Our Early Childhood Education Workforce: Stress, Well-Being, and Promising Directions for Research and Practice.”

“What is well-being? We’re throwing it around a lot now. What is it?” she said. The dictionary definition is the state of being happy, healthy or prosperous; flourishing. It is marked by self-acceptance, personal growth, purpose in life, positive relations with others, environmental mastery, and autonomy.

“Having a purpose in life—this turns out to be extremely important for people who are not well compensated,” Gallagher said, such as the early care and education workforce.

In the IOM’s “Transforming the Workforce” report, “I was excited to see recognition of the importance of the workforce, that the most proximal relationships are the biggest factor in how well kids do,” she said. “The well-being of the workforce is at the center.”

That well-being is affected by stress and depression. Gallagher cited a 2012 Pennsylvania Head Start staff wellness survey, which found a high prevalence of depression, about 25 percent. As stress increases, the prevalence of depression increases as well, she said. Workplace stress and depression lead to more teacher-child conflict and poorer relationships, she said.

The most common message from Head Start staff was their joy and happiness at work, their belief in the Head Start mission and sense of competency from doing well at work. But at the same time, many reported not making enough money, working a second job, and general financial hardship. They also reported high workplace demands and low support from leadership. Though much meaningful work was accomplished, many Head Start staff were suffering and lacked resources to be well, Gallagher said, adding that the survey found high levels of health problems.

One strategy that helped was mindfulness, she said. The Head Start program found that as mindfulness increased, educators were better able to deal with stress and their depression decreased. That led to better outcomes with children and parents.

Lisa Flook, associate scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, led one session at the symposium largely about mindfulness training and conducted a mindfulness exercise with participants. Flook said educators who learn mindfulness practices can model them in the classroom and help their students, too.

Gallagher said: “We have to think about studying ways to increase workplace well-being. Even in the most privileged circumstances, they are not the healthiest work environments.”

She said organizational change is needed, as well as better economic supports. Gallagher displayed U.S. maps showing where wages have increased or decreased for child care workers and preschool teachers, and where early childhood workforce compensation strategies have advanced or stalled.

“We have some models. We think we have some things that are working,” she said.

Gathering Data on Nebraska's Workforce

The Buffett Institute’s Susan Sarver and Amy Roberts, a research specialist at the Institute, presented a session on well-being in the Nebraska early care and education workforce.

“When I started at the Buffett Institute, one of the first things I said to Sam (Meisels, founding executive director) is we don’t know enough about the early childhood workforce in Nebraska,” Sarver said. The survey—intended to understand Nebraska’s early childhood workforce birth through Grade 3 across settings, geography, and preparation—was conducted in 2015 and 2016, and data analysis was completed early this year.

Surveys were sent to licensed home-based providers, center-based professionals, and principals and teachers in public schools serving children in PreKindergarten through third grade. 

Roberts said the survey gathered information about demographics, financial resources, qualifications, depressive symptoms, stress, beliefs about children, and characteristics of the children served. The survey showed that most educators experienced some depressive symptoms across all settings. The survey findings will be released in 2017.

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