Investigating teaching staff turnover in early childhood education
Developing and retaining well-trained teachers and aides is critically important to ensure high quality early childhood education (ECE) programs but keeping qualified early childhood educators on staff has always been a challenge. A new article, “Retention and turnover of teaching staff in a high-quality early childhood network,” recently published online in volume 65 of Early Childhood Research Quarterly, highlights research—led by UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) Senior Research Scientists Donna Bryant, PhD, and Noreen Yazejian, PhD—that investigated the timing of staﬀ turnover and the characteristics associated with this turnover. The findings reveal that staff turnover is a multifaceted challenge, with changes needed in systems and policies at the program, local, state, and national levels.
In addition to Bryant and Yazejian, the research team was comprised of: FPG Advanced Research Scientist Laura Kuhn, PhD; FPG Senior Research Scientist Sandra Soliday Hong, PhD; former FPG Research Assistant Wonkyung Jang, PhD; and researchers from the University of Washington, Start Early—a nonprofit public-private partnership advancing quality early learning and care for families—and the Educare Learning Network Investigative Team, comprised of local evaluators at each Educare school.
Turnover of ECE teachers has an impact on the young children being taught and on their families and other educators as well. Prior research indicates staﬀ turnover can potentially reduce the quality of the care and teaching provided to children. Similarly, families may be affected by these changes, finding it difficult to establish a positive relationship with new teachers or being concerned about their child’s emotional security. The remaining staff members can be affected by disruptions in scheduling and teamwork, leading to a negative work environment. Bryant, Yazejian, and their colleagues note that these stresses on families and remaining staﬀ likely have direct and indirect eﬀects on children’s learning.
The research team collected survey data from a large sample of classroom teaching staﬀ at 23 early childhood schools across the U.S. These schools are part of the Educare network —a coast-to-coast consortium of state-of-the-art, full-day, year-round schools funded mostly by existing public dollars—that serves children from birth to 5 years who live in marginalized communities.
The researchers used survival analysis to investigate the timing of staﬀ turnover and the characteristics associated with turnover. This type of analysis offers a way to examine timing related to an event—in this case, a teacher leaving an ECE program—to analyze temporal data. The study is based on organizational theory, which has identiﬁed individual characteristics, interpersonal relationships, job satisfaction, and ﬁnancial rewards as key in teacher retention. The data were collected from 2,760 staff (teachers, assistant teachers, and aides) over 12 years, from 2007 to 2019.
Three main research questions guided this work:
- What are the turnover rates of teaching staﬀ in a network of well supported ECE programs?
- Do teaching staﬀ who leave their programs diﬀer from those who stay on demographic characteristics, attitudes/beliefs about their work, mental health, or age group taught?
- Do teaching staﬀ at diﬀerent professional levels diﬀer; that is, how do lead teacher turnover rates and predictive characteristics compare to those of assistant teachers and teacher aides?
Researchers examined measures including job stress, work environment, education level, depression, and turnover. They found that those who were more positive about their work environment were less likely to leave; a higher education level was associated with a greater risk of leaving. In addition, infant-toddler classroom staﬀ were more likely to remain in their jobs than those in preschool classrooms. Black staﬀ members were more likely to stay than Hispanic/Latina or white staﬀ.
“Recruiting and retaining a diverse, well-qualified, and stable workforce to support children and their families requires that we address the fact that teachers are underpaid and under-appreciated,” notes Donna Bryant.
After conducting separate survival analyses by staﬀ type, the researchers found that some predictors of staying were different for teachers compared to assistants/aides. Lead teachers and assistants/aides who had positive views of their work environment were more likely to remain in their jobs, but more education was a predictor of leaving only for the assistant/aide group. The authors suggest that this is likely because of the limited range in the education variable among leads (the majority have a BA or MA). It is notable that even in the highly resourced early childhood programs in this study, staff turnover was 30% annually and the average duration of lead teachers and assistants/aides was a little more than two years.
The sample consisted of high-quality programs so the results may not be applicable to all ECE programs. Nevertheless, the authors point out issues that may apply more broadly to the ﬁeld and suggest that these should be considered by ECE leaders, administrators, and policy makers. The data suggest some areas to be addressed at the individual level, including symptoms of depression; at the programmatic level, such as work environments; and at systemic levels, such as livable salaries and racial disparities. They note that at the individual level, more attention is currently being paid to staﬀ mental and physical health and suggest that raising awareness of ways to de-stress and providing self-care trainings such as meditation and mindfulness can help ECE staﬀ at all levels.
“Early childhood educators not only educate and nurture children, they also support society more generally by allowing parents to attend school, work, and pay taxes," says Noreen Yazejian.
While the data for this study were collected before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, researchers note that staffing early childhood education programs is even more challenging today. Program directors and policy experts are calling it a crisis. The impact of transformative events—including state shut-downs, the “great resignation,” and post-pandemic inﬂation—has yet to be quantified. Society is increasingly understanding the essential role played by ECE providers, but this has not yet resulted in changes to long-term infrastructure to better support providers.
“Recruiting and retaining a diverse, well-qualified, and stable workforce to support children and their families requires that we address the fact that teachers are underpaid and under-appreciated,” noted Bryant. Yazejian added, “Early childhood educators not only educate and nurture children, they also support society more generally by allowing parents to attend school, work, and pay taxes.” Both researchers believe that early childhood teachers are truly essential to our nation’s infrastructure and warrant better support for the health and welfare of these staff members, children, and the nation.