I see you staying at work late to make sure every last toy is sanitized, and that the classroom is ready for the next day. I see you juggling COVID-19 anxiety for yourself, and for a dozen or more families.
I see you doing one of the most critical jobs in the world, and wondering if it’s worth it.
I assure you that right now, more than ever before, you are needed. Parents need you, communities need you, and of course children need you. Now more than ever.
But I also know that the work we’re doing is more challenging than ever. Which is why especially now, you need to remember to give yourself time to rest. Burnout is a common risk in the Early Years sector, and given the stresses we’re all facing, it’s understandable. Luckily, there are a few things you can do, each week or each day, to find some breathing room in the middle of everything.
In this article, we’ll dive into how you can recognize burnout when you feel it, and what you can do to prevent burnout — both for yourself, and for your team.
First, burnout is a very real thing — just ask the World Health Organization. According to the WHO, we most often feel burnout as the following symptoms:
Often times, once one person starts to experience burnout symptoms like losing energy and enthusiasm, coworkers feel obliged to pick up the slack, and spend extra time supporting that burnt-out colleague. In other words, burnout doesn’t happen in isolation.
Burnout is something you and your team need to take seriously, and work to prevent it before it sets in.
Unfortunately, those of us in the Early Years sector are all too susceptible to burnout. It might be the poor pay and long hours, the lack of benefits, the lack of support from outside the sector, or any number of stresses that we’re facing down right now. Knowing all of this, it’s not all that surprising that in 2012, we saw a reported annual turnover rate of 30 percent among early childhood educators in the United States.
When you wait and don’t address the stress, and start dreading going to work every day, things start to seem worse. Low pay, little respect, and a revolving door of co-workers that need to be trained. The job gets hard, and the children in your care might start to feel that you’re feeling a bit off.
That’s why it’s so critical to the Early Years sector especially that we watch out for burnout, and take steps to avoid it. It’s not just about us — it’s for the children, too.
As teachers, we spend a fair amount of our days planning rich play experiences for children. But have we explored what play means to us as adults?
Peter Gray, author and psychologist who focuses on the importance of play, writes:
“Perhaps play would be more respected if we called it something like ‘self-motivated practice of life skills,’ but that would remove the lightheartedness from it and thereby reduce its effectiveness. So we are stuck with the paradox. We must accept play’s triviality in order to realize its profundity.”
Play is critical for children, and the same holds for adults. But we might give it different names: Hobbies, interests, pastimes, passions.
In a training session I once took with Life is Good Playmakers, we explored the idea of self-preservation, and how we can all create a play plan for ourselves. This is of course based on our individual interests and what brings us joy.
Here’s what my play plan looks like:
Play might seem frivolous or indulgent to you, especially in such a critical time. But now is a better time than ever to make space for it — to give your brain room to be creative and unwind from your day.
Maybe you haven’t heard of appreciative inquiry before, but it’s nothing to be afraid of. Put simply, it’s the habit of deliberately focusing on and highlighting the victories, successes and high points of your work.
In your child care center, you can use appreciative inquiry to find more bright moments in each day. Especially when it’s so easy to get overwhelmed by stresses, we’ve got to celebrate the high points as they come.
As early childhood administrators, leaders, and teachers, here are a few ways we can practice appreciate inquiry on a daily basis:
If you’re interested in learning more about using appreciative inquiry in conversations, check out Conversations Worth Having by Jacki Stavros and Cheri Torres.
One resource that’s been incredibly valuable for myself and the families in my own program is the S.E.E.D. certification. It’s a program to help us all get a little better with meeting our emotional needs (for children, parents and staff), and I’ve found it helpful in approaching some of the tough conversations you might have to have in child care.
Going through the S.E.E.D. certification has allowed for each teacher in the setting to take time to deeply reflect on their own triggers, biases and upbringing, which shape the way we act and respond to things in our lives. The trainings helped us gain some better understanding of subjects like bias, self-awareness, sensory integration, self-care, boundaries, and more.
Again, it gets back to this core idea of preventing burnout: If we want to take care of children, we’ve got to take care of ourselves, too. My favorite quote by founder Alyssa Blask Campbell is, “A dysregulated adult cannot regulate a dysregulated child.”
The work we do is hard, and it’s hard to make time for yourself throughout the day. Right when you think you’ve got time for a quick lunch break, the youngest child decides nap time just isn’t for them today. I get it.
Self-care is not about a day at the spa. It is not about getting your nails done. Self-care can look like drinking water, eating meals when you are supposed to, and getting enough sleep. Last week, I was guilty of not doing any of this. I got through the whole day, and it wasn’t until I sat down at 6 p.m. that I realized I had not eaten, used the bathroom, or drank water. That is not sustainable.
I wrote a whole book on strategies for burnout, and I’m still not immune. I know that taking these daily wellness steps is easier said than done — and I also know they’re easier when we help each other. Sometimes, you just need a colleague’s reminder to drink some water, to take a bathroom break, to remember to eat your lunch. From these daily details to making play plans and taking training sessions, every step to avoid burnout is an investment in your own well-being, and that of the children in your care.
I want to leave you with five key thoughts:
Preventing burnout can be hard, especially in trying times. But it’s easier when we have plans and strategies for it. Children need you now more than ever — to care for them, and to help them grow to be emotionally intelligent, self-aware, kind, respectful and curious.
What will you do today for you?Ellen Drolette has been working in the early childhood education sector for 25 years, and specializes in early childhood workforce development and capacity. You can learn more about Ellen and her work on her website, www.positivespinllc.com.
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.