What researchers are learning about the health of early childhood educators - Women's Agenda

What researchers are learning about the health of early childhood educators


If you currently have, or have ever had, a child in early childhood education and care, you’ll have some idea of the hard, complex and challenging work that educators take on.

And if you work in this sector, you’ll know first-hand some of the hazards that can come up day to day.

But the true challenges of early childhood education are often overlooked and misunderstood.

These educators take on multiple children at once: they’re tasked with not only managing their emotional and physical needs, but also their education and development while in care.

Educators also need to manage and maintain relationships with colleagues – navigating the issues that come with any kind of team-based work environment – as well as the politics that arise from competing for a limited number of senior positions.

They are often taking on additional study commitments outside of work, in order to continually improve and keep up with what’s required of them.

And of course, they need to manage the parents and carers of the children they educate and care for. They respond to requests and needs from families. They manage paperwork and continually record and create updates for parents on what occurred during the day.

It’s physically and emotionally draining work. Indeed, this sector has rates of injury that are comparable with sectors that are more typically thought of as hazardous: like construction.

And now, thanks to researchers at Charles Sturt University, we have some data on the toll that it’s taking on educators. Particularly, where it can lead to injury, exhaustion and burnout.  

The data comes from the Early Childhood Educators’ Well-being Project (ECEWP), a series of research studies aiming to “generate high quality, holistic evidence of educators’ well-being.”

And it comes as ACECQA predicts we’ll need 39,000 additional educators (including 9,000 teachers) in Australia by 2023 in order to keep up with demand for early childhood education. Understanding the impact on the wellbeing of those already in the sector is essential for making it happen. 

One of the researchers, Tamara Cumming from CSU’s School of Teacher Education, spoke to Women’s Agenda about the research, saying that they are determined to take a wholistic approach to examining wellbeing, and that their project incorporate “first in the world stuff” in their efforts to find out as much as possible.

They worked with 73 educators from nine childhood services, operated by four different not-for-profit organisations across Australia. They asked participants to complete self-assessments, while also wearing ‘hexoskin vests’ during shifts, enabling the researchers to capture data on cardiorespiratory activities as well as how the body needs to move throughout the day and the effort involved. They compared their data to existing HILDA datasets and examined rates of injury through claims made to Australia’s largest compensation insures, icare, among other things.

Tamara Cumming
Tamara Cumming

Overall, they found that with more than 195,000 early childhood educators across Australia who are (as we learnt more than ever during COVID-19) essential workers, this is a sector that is too often overlooked when it comes to hazardous workplaces.

On analysing 1200 claims in the 2016-17 period from icare, the researchers found that 85% of claims were for ‘injuries’ while the remaining 15% related to “diseases and conditions”. On injuries, the vast majority (94%) were physical, with psychological injuries making up 6% of claims.

When it comes to the top three most serious physical injuries for educators – body stressing, falls (including trips and slips), and being hit by a moving object – the rates of physical injuries in the early childcare and education sector in two of these three categories is higher than the national average.

Meanwhile, across the education services examined, they found 23.3% lacked facilities for members with disabilities, while close to 40% lacked adult-sized furniture in classrooms or spaces for meeting with colleagues that were separate to spaces used by children.

On exhaustion – a potential indicator of burnout that could see educators needing to take time off or even leave the sector altogether – the researchers found that 60% of educators feel emotional exhaustion at least once a month, and for another 20% it is at least once a week.  

The majority noted they “need to be nice no matter how I feel” – for 23 percent, that was every day, and for 37 percent it is once a week.

And while you may think that educators are on their feet all day and would easily surpass recommended daily step counts, around half (49 per cent) recorded less than 5000 steps a day. Cumming said the physical components of the work comes more from lifting children and bending down to their needs. Often, educators have little opportunities to take walks.

Cumming also shared concerns about a lack of nutrition options for educators in some centres – including sometimes inabilities to make or purchase a healthy lunch and even a sense of feeling guilty for taking a lunchbreak. She reported that many educators travel long distances to get to their centres, with some getting up as early as 4:30am in order to make it in time for their shift.

Despite these challenges, the survey uncovered a deep sense of work satisfaction from educators in the work they do: 97.3% reported they feel they “make a positive difference in children’s lives”, while 78.1% said the work “gave them a sense of accomplishment.”

Still, they highlighted a lack of respect from segments of the population. While 84.9% said they feel respected by “families in their care” and similar figures for other people in early childhood care and their own family members, those feelings of respect then drop considerably across other areas. Just 10% of respondents believe “the public at large” respects the work they do.

“This is hard and complex work,” Cumming said. “Then you have all of it coupled with the pay issue, and just how underpaid these educators are. You can add to that the perceived lack of recognition for the work they do from the general public.”

Cumming said they want to use their findings and continued research in this space to lobby for change on getting the wellbeing or educators better considered in the National Quality Framework. 

She says that the portion of the NQS that already focuses on educator wellbeing needs to be either enhanced, or new principles need to be added to the NQS. Much of it, she adds, could come down to supporting healthy workplaces cultures: including leadership, respect and paying more attention to what wellbeing means in different individual contexts.

“We believe our work has contributed, even in the past three years, to an awareness in the sector of it being OK to talk about educator’s wellbeing – and that it’s actually very important to do so,” Cumming said. 

As Cumming said, it.

“Over the next three years, we’re expected to have a shortage of close to 10,000 people in this sector. The reason is because we keep churning people through. We are losing people. We need to address this.”  

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