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As owners and administrators, it’s easy to get lost in the fog of our own pressures. We wonder why our employees keep making mistakes, without pausing to really understand the impact of the stress they’re under.

In his research, author Keith Herman and his team found that 93% of elementary school teachers have high levels of stress. Not only that, they also found that high teacher stress is usually associated with poorer student results and frequent behavior problems.

And of course, it’s the same case for those of who dare to brave the front lines of early childhood education. So what can we do about it?

First, identify the problem

The first step to turning your stressed-out staff into a team of empowered educators is to get to the root of the problem. Some things, such as policies and funding, may be out of your control (at least, for now).

But other things, such as giving each member of the team a sense of autonomy, purpose, and recognition, can almost always be improved at the practical level. Is an avalanche of paperwork killing morale? Is pressure from parents making your staff feel underappreciated? Are they concerned about the future of the profession as a whole?

Here are some simple ways to find out:

  • Hold one-on-ones with each member of the team and ask for honest feedback.
  • Send an anonymous survey to collect their insights (best for teams of 10 or more).
  • Investigate triggers and bottlenecks to identify ineffective patterns and workflows.

Once you’ve nailed down the top sources of employee stress, it’s time to develop a culture where everyone’s working together to make the job better.

Scrap the bureaucratic performance goals

Early childhood educators need a sense of purpose like never before.

But at most preschools, they have to wait an entire year to get the kind of feedback that keeps them motivated to hit their goals. In her candid article for Gibson, Melissa Grubb, head of school at the Stanley Clark School explains how they moved from the angst-inducing annual review to a performance tracking system that supports purpose-driven goals and values.

“We assume the process is designed for the employees we wish to keep, not the occasional bad fit,” said Grubb. “Explicitly communicating this mindset positively changed how our employees perceive the experience.”

Grubb’s performance process isn’t about figuring out who to fire. It’s about empowering individual growth while upholding the school’s cultural values.

Employees are given 6 questions and 30 positive statements to review before each performance meeting in order to help spark a productive conversation about how their day-to-day work helps drive their ultimate mission forward.

Double down on employee appreciation

And we don’t mean passing out awards once a year.

If you really want to make your people feel awesome, you need to develop a culture where wins are recognized daily.

According to a report from the Society of Human Resources, 41% of companies that use peer-to-peer recognition have seen positive increases in customer satisfaction and 79% have better financial results. So make sure the high-fives aren’t just coming from the top down.

Here are some simple ideas to try:

  • Hold a team meeting every Friday and ask each member of the team to call out another team member’s win.
  • Use a shared notebook and ask team members to jot down their shout-outs.
  • Give each other spontaneous 👏🏾 via an easy-to-use child care app.

Recognition can be way more creative than a typical “Employee of the Month” scheme. And it’s important to note that every team member will have their own definition of what it means to be recognized. (For instance, your introverts might not love a public shout out.)

You’re fortunate to be working with people who are trained in the art of creative engagement. Ask them for their ideas and be genuinely open to trying new things.

Encourage autonomy

Now more than ever, early childhood professionals need a sense of agency.

As advocates for young children, we should encourage our teachers and caregivers to fight for industry advancement. But it’s worth remembering, no revolution was ever funded by the crown.

To really keep them going, caregivers and educators need tools to help them assert their power and reclaim their value daily. Here are a few ways you can help give your people a voice.

  • Enhanced parent communication – When there’s a great rapport between parents and staff, employees feel trusted and appreciated. If there’s minimal face time at drop-off and pick-up, see if you can improve your digital communication with parents and guardians and integrate regular family nights.
  • Team-based decision making – The pressure to keep up with the latest early learning standards is real. An idea might be great in theory, but you need to bring in the troops if you want to know how to best apply it at the practical level. And trust us, they’ll love you for it.
  • Self-directed self-care – Do you know what each member of your team needs in times of stress? Starting a conversation about stress and mental health in the workplace is half the battle, so ask each individual what works for them.

The simple act of making room for someone to take a 5-minute break outside, count backward from ten or grab a glass of water could mean a world of difference in the way they show up.

Remember why they’re here

Despite the low pay and high pressure, educators and caregivers show up every day in the hope of being a steady source of positive support for children. They deserve to feel great at work.

But all too often they’re rushing in late, exhausted from the stress of after-hours admin work, endless chatter about what they “should” be doing, and, in the case of caregivers who are also parents, their own parental guilt.

“That’s a bad setup for everyone,” says Herman. “I hope we are calling attention to the fact that teachers need our support, as parents, as community members, as policymakers, and as private citizens. When teachers are neglected, our children are neglected.”

We couldn’t agree more.

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