A call for action: Improving the mental health outcomes of our educators
Being an early childhood educator comes with a responsibility to inspire, cherish, provoke and entice deep learning processes in the children we care for and educate. This sees us working as a member of a team, an influential unit coming with individual perspectives and beliefs on how children learn and participate in their social community.
Then you have those educators and teachers who are also leaders in the profession, often taking on leadership roles in addition to their teaching engagements. Taking on the operations, learnings and professional identities of the educators in their service and working with them collaboratively to enhance the quality of their teaching outcomes. An ongoing commitment in many places around the world as we acknowledge the impact that the early years have on children’s future growth and learning.
Much of what we teach children is often very applicable to us as educators as well. When you are in the thick of it, caught in the cycle of learning stories being saved as drafts or having those unshared planning documents sitting and waiting for you to add the final little snippets of thinking… all to make your teaching and children’s learning more valuable. Fellow educator’s and professionals are more than empathetic to this circumstance and this comes from an understanding of the profession which cannot be attained elsewhere.
With so much responsibility put on the emphasis on improving the quality of our early education systems, it is no wonder that teacher mental health topics are becoming more spoken about.
Mental health needs balance amongst all domains
As teachers, we know that one area of development has an impact on another. So, when we make a commitment to take control of our mental health, we need to acknowledge the status of our other health domains as well. Sandra Phoenix explores this idea creatively through her CUPS theory which is used to help educators understand children’s behaviour. Yet, the same concepts can be easily applied to adults as well. Consider the times when you are feeling a little run down and tired, this is just as likely to be influenced by your lower levels of attention toward your exercise and nutrition as much as it could be from overworking. When you are planning on setting strategies to support your mental health through the year it is beneficial to start with labelling your own health domains – physical, social, emotional, spiritual, intellectual for example- and clearly articulate what these categories will require from you.
It might be that you need to eat 5 serves of veggies and 2 serves of fruit each day. Socially, you might feel that you need to get together once a week with a friend for a quick coffee date. Spiritually, you might want to practice one mindfulness or meditation exercise each day. Emotionally, you might want to plan to go for a run each day with the knowledge that this helps you regulate your anxiety. Intellectually you might plan to research pedagogy on a play theory.
When you plan your health needs out this way, you are giving yourself an opportunity to see the ‘why’ when you become burnt out or overloaded. This empowers you to be able to take control of the situation you are in and then put a little more effort and reflection into the health domain that may have been temporarily forgotten. Positive mental health and wellbeing are promoted through increasing the overall quality of life that we experience through embedding realistic, preventative strategies. As educators, this means thinking about how our everyday routines can be used to balance and implement action towards positive mental health with our peers and children.
With the knowledge that professionals in early childhood are constantly under tight demand and recognizing the increasing voice toward mental health advocacy for educators, we still have a long way to go for the topic to be considered safe.
What does safety mean in this concept? It means being able to come to work and know that your quirks and personal routines are not being judged. It means that mental health topics stop being viewed as taboo. It means that we stop putting educator wellbeing at the back of our improvement and professional plans. It means that we accept prevention strategies as a responsibility of being considered an educator of children. It means everyone being on the same page.
This is a tough gig because there are so many perspectives toward what is and is not considered ‘healthy’ in regard to mental health. As educators who sit together in a lunchroom each day, a simple act of inviting others to join you outside for lunch can be one step in the right direction. Getting outside for lunch breaks every now and then is not only good for the change of scenery but it is also good for the mind from a spiritual sense. But this inspiration requires someone to kick it off, someone to lead the way and set forth some strategies that work to embed mental health into everyday routine. This is putting mental health first. This is what it looks like when mental health and wellbeing is considered safe to the educators in the service.
Where to start in your workplace?
Often we are reluctant to be the driver of campaigns or topics in our workplace because we are unsure of how to do it or we are worried about how others will respond. There is growing evidence to support that many education professionals are becoming increasingly more stressed in their roles with reduced job satisfaction. This means that there is a call for helping educators to implement realistic and authentic strategies into their workplace in an attempt to reduce and manage stress. The things that increase levels of stress in one educator is going to look, feel and be different to another educator. This is often why many attempts to implement mental health policy and practice in early learning services can be unsuccessful.
In order to set strong foundations for reducing stress, educators need to be able to clearly articulate and define what it is that makes them stressed. For some, it is clutter or poor team spirit that sees their stress levels rising. For others, it is balancing their work with study or finding ways to support challenging behaviours in children. As an individual, you could dot point or mind map these elements in your usual reflection process. You could also consider starting a conversation with a team member about what you are doing and why it is important. If you are a leader or manager in an early learning service, you have a greater capacity to make a big impact within your teams.
Leaders can facilitate team and individual learning opportunities for their educators through planned meetings or professional development sessions. In this circumstance, teams could define what their stresses are as a group and then set strategies collectively to prevent their impact. Or alternatively, if educators prefer to work on these elements independently, leaders could send motivational reminders for educators to review their mind and body health on a regular basis. This could come with a strategy or two that is generic to the team, such as a picture with the caption saying, “The table set up out the front under the trees is a wonderful space at the moment to enjoy your break, get some fresh air and recharge”. This strategy can work well as a tool to inspire, inform and motivate educators to talk about mental health with their colleagues in a safe and respected environment.
Sarah is a university trained early childhood educator, who lives in NSW Australia. Sarah is the owner and operator of SREED, an early education consultancy business designed to enhance the access and availability of quality professional development in regional and remote areas. She also works as the educational leader in a long day care service, supporting and mentoring a team of educators to facilitate a curriculum that fosters children’s developing levels of wellbeing and involvement. In her spare time, Sarah enjoys family bike rides and walks with her husband and two girls aged 7 and 2.
Sarah is an advocate for sharing knowledge and understandings with other professionals which is the driving force within her passion for writing.
To catch up with more of Sarah’s work, you can find her here: