Many teachers of young children will tell you they love going to work every day. Early education professionals have a real passion for what they do. They are 100% committed to their students and their families. They don’t tell you there are many challenges facing early childhood education. The most dedicated teachers can’t avoid difficulties when dealing with young children. There are some issues that even the most dedicated teachers can’t avoid. This article addresses some of the opportunities and challenges in early childhood education.
Current Issues in Early Childhood Education 2021
Many of the current issues teachers of early childhood education face are not new. Some of them have been around for a long time. Some new issues come from things like classroom-related changes. We’ll start with the most obvious problem in the field of ECE: the pandemic.
The Pandemic Plunge
For years, teachers of all grades and subject areas have complained about the “summer slide”—that is the decline in school performance that happens when their students return to school after a three-month break. Some studies have reported this loss of learning to be as much as a quarter of all material learned during the prior school year. Teachers’ concerns over the summer slide could be greater this year since the pandemic’s distance learning made learning and retention even more challenging for students.
While the pandemic slide may be of concern for all types of teachers, it could add a major burden to an already long list of preschool issues and problems. That’s because the learning milestones that must be met during these early years of a student’s academic journey are the key to their long-term success in school. Early reading goals that are not met, for example, can impact a child’s reading and writing abilities for years to come. The same is true for basic skills like spatial and number sense as well as basic adding and subtracting. Thus, one of the main problems kindergarten and pre-K teachers face will be making sure that kids leave their classrooms with the skills they need to tackle their remaining years in elementary school and beyond.
Long Hours and No Sick Days
Just like a parents’ work is never done, the same is true for the teachers of early childhood-age children. When you consider the amount of paperwork early childhood educators are responsible for on top of managing a classroom full of little ones all day, you can see why long work hours may be among the many challenges preschool teachers face today.
While this is not a new problem and isn’t isolated to early childhood learning, it may be one of the bigger preschool issues, and problems teachers are currently facing due to federally mandated student-teacher ratios. Since a certain number of early education trained professionals must be present depending on the size of the classroom, serious staffing problems can arise if a teacher takes a day off or calls in sick. This circumstance in a preschool class can create a stressful situation where teachers feel compelled to come to school no matter how bad they feel to keep the peace.
Of course, the clear answer to this staffing problem is to hire more trained early childhood professionals, but the solution isn’t problem-free. We will address some of these issues later in the article. For now, consider how difficult it might be for schools and childcare facilities to attract and keep new teachers in the ECE field when they’re not able to pay for the most basic tools that young children need to be successful.
Declining Mental Health
An early childhood educator needs to be their best self in the classroom. This is not only for their own sake but for the well-being of the kids in their care. The problem of declining mental health in the ECE field affects little ones, so it’s an issue everyone should care about. Specifically, when teachers feel stressed or overwhelmed in their classrooms, their teaching skills suffer, and so does their ability to manage the classroom. They may have a shorter fuse with their students or not feel up to providing as much positive encouragement as children at this age need. A large amount of evidence has proven that children exposed to too much stress in the early years of life can have tremendous difficulty down the line. This includes stress disorders and even mental impairment. It’s clear that a young child’s healthy brain development is dependent upon relationships with caring, stable adults who can model positive stress responses.
While the mental health of early childhood teachers has been a concern for a long time, the rise of Covid has only made the problem worse. In Virginia, for example, 33% of preschool teachers working in public schools reported feeling depressed in 2020. This is up from just 15% pre-pandemic. And for reasons we’ve already talked about, taking a mental health day was simply not possible for many of these teachers who suffered in silence for the most part.
When schools across the country turned to distance learning as a way to stay afloat during the pandemic, preschools took it especially hard. That’s because so much of what we know about early learning goes against the idea that young children can learn effectively online. That is to say, research-backed teaching methods like project-based learning and free play are hard to replicate via Zoom.
While distance for preschoolers in and of itself tops the list of challenges teachers face today, this problem was made worse when partway through the pandemic, parents across the United States were given the choice of whether to keep their kids at home for virtual learning or send them back to school for face-to-face learning. That meant the school curriculum for preschool and kindergarten classrooms was divided into two groups. Teachers would be responsible for providing equal instruction to both. In many cases, this meant two separate sets of lesson plans, two sets of grade reports, and not enough time in the day to tackle either one. Parents may have felt empowered by choice between virtual and regular instruction. For teachers, divided curriculum planning only added to the list of preschool issues and problems brought on by Covid-19.
If you’ve read this far, you may think that early childhood teachers should be some of the highest-paid professionals in the world. And you’d be right. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case at all. On the contrary, early childhood educators are notoriously underpaid. This is especially true for young teachers just entering the profession and those without an advanced degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), preschool teachers earned an average annual wage of just $31,930 in 2020, and the lowest 10% of teachers in the field made just $21,900 yearly. Ironically, that puts many preschool teachers who are married with children of their own under the U.S. poverty line. In California, early childhood educators are twice as likely as other employed residents to live in poverty. Despite receiving praise from parents, administrators, and even the community at large, it’s easy to feel underappreciated when you’re working long hours and still can’t make ends meet.. That feeling can take hold, making teachers feel as if their work is meaningless, which can lead to burnout, another of the key challenges teachers face today.
Lack of Resources
A recent study entitled Closing America’s Education Funding Gaps found that public schools in the United States are underfunded to $150 billion per year. Moreover, researchers found that this funding gap disproportionally impacted school districts comprised mostly of black and Latinx students. What does this mean for early childhood educators? It means that among the many challenges teachers face today, lack of resources remains one of the most important. To make up for the extremely small budgets set for classroom materials, many kindergarten and preschool teachers resort to desperate measures to make sure their kids don’t fall behind. This can mean even reaching into their own pockets (which are often close to empty due to their poor salaries) to make up the difference. If you were to ask a group of early childhood educators the question: “what are the challenges of a preschool teacher?” a lack of resources would almost assuredly be discussed.
Burnout in the teaching profession is real, and it has been for a long time. If you add up all the kindergarten/preschool issues and problems, it comes down to the sad reality that finding and keeping qualified early childhood educators is becoming increasingly difficult. According to a 2020 study, a whopping 44% of new teachers leave the field of education within the first five years of entering it. To find the many reasons why one only has to ask: what are the challenges of a kindergarten or preschool teacher today? Unfortunately, there are too many to name, but it seems one of the key obstacles that lead to burnout is micromanagement in the profession.
Young teachers enter the field bright-eyed and ready to change the world with their creativity and inspiration, only to find out that teaching has become strictly laid out, thanks to looming accountability protocols. This includes the presence of a national curriculum and a growing number of standardized tests they must prepare their young learners to take. Many new teachers feel that the job they were tasked with is simply impossible, and the pressure is two-fold. They feel pressured by parents and administrators to perform miracles in the classroom (with few resources). They also put a lot of pressure on themselves to deliver for the kids in their classrooms. Then there are the common kindergarten/preschool issues and problems that these children bring. Sadly, it often comes from issues at home like food insecurity, absent parents, emotional and behavioral problems, and even abuse. This can make the mountain becomes too steep for a lot of new teachers to climb, especially when they feel unsupported.
Burnout isn’t just a problem for teachers; it affects our nation’s children too. It’s common knowledge that preschool-aged children need stable relationships with adults to thrive. When a kid’s teacher leaves their job because of the growing challenges facing early childhood education today, it can disrupt a child’s social and emotional development and lead to missed milestones and gaps in learning later on.
Rewards of Working in Early Childhood Education
At the start of our discussion, we promised to discuss both the challenges and opportunities in early childhood education. While it’s easy to focus on the many problems faced by a preschool or kindergarten teacher today, it’s just as important to remember the positive things. Many of these dedicated educators return to their jobs school year after the school year. The reason they do it? The kids.
Perhaps more than any other professional, early childhood educators see the value and promise in children. Deep inside, they know what these kids can accomplish. They make supporting these children’s learning and development their primary purpose in life. This is why working in early childhood education is often referred to as a calling. For those who answer it, the rewards are many. Seeing a child grasp a new concept, for instance, or forming a bond with a child labeled a “behavior problem,” is often enough to keep these preschool and kindergarten teachers going strong for months at a time. Of all the potential benefits of teaching at this level, the knowledge that you’re truly making a difference in the world (albeit one child and one lesson at a time) is arguably the greatest reward.
Kindergarten and Pre-K teachers who are making the decision to enter the field should be aware that they will face both challenges and opportunities in early childhood education. If the last year or so has taught us anything, it’s that the challenges teachers face today may not be the same ones they’ll face the following year. Thus, early childhood education teachers must be resilient enough to weather the storms while keeping their passion for guiding little ones burning bright. It isn’t an easy task by any stretch of the imagination. We would argue that not only does it call for a special type of person but also the support of individual communities and the nation at large. Many of the problems faced by kindergarten teachers and preschool teachers alike are financial in nature (like low pay and a lack of resources). As a society, we must be willing to invest in our future This means opening our wallets to support early childhood educators and the children they’re responsible for teaching.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS): Occupational Outlook Handbook
- The Century Foundation: U.S. Schools Underfunded by Nearly $150 Billion Annually
- Childcare.gov: Ratios and Group Sizes
- Economic Policy Institute (EPI): Breaking the Silence on Early Child Care and Education Costs
- EdSurge: The Pandemic Was Disastrous for Early Childhood Education
- Fordham Institute: A New Era of Accountability in Education
- Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child: Toxic Stress
- Rewire: Why New Teachers are Burning Out Early
- Scholastic: Summer Slide Statistics & Prevention
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: 2021 Poverty Guidelines
- Education Degree Rankings
- Top 50 Online Colleges for Early Childhood Education (Bachelor’s)
- Master’s in Early Childhood Education Online: Top 25 Values
- Top 40 Accelerated Online Master’s in Education Programs
- Online PhD Early Childhood Education
- Highest Paying Early Childhood Education Jobs
- Top 12 Characteristics of a Great Early Childhood Education Teacher
- Colleges Making Permanent Changes During Covid
- College Tips for Moms