Loneliness in Early Childhood Education: it's more common than you think

It can feel lonely as an ECE director or leader. We’ve been there, and want to share ways to help.
loneliness in ECE
January 27, 2024
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In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.

  • ECE leaders are some of the most respected, loyal and amazing people you could meet, and they usually love what they do. So why is there such a high staff burnout rate?
  • Summer explains why it can feel so lonely for ECE staff members, specifically directors and leaders.
  • She highlights how unique working in ECE is, and while that is one of the best parts, it is also what may make ECE leaders feel misunderstood, which can lead to feeling lonely.
  • Summer explains the 4 R’s of building a healthy childcare business: retention, recruitment, risk mitigation and revenue protection
  • She concludes by explaining that it is normal to feel lonely, but you truly are not alone. She also provides some suggestions to help ECE leaders feel a sense of belonging with the community that you really are a part of.

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We all have a story about how we became involved in the childcare industry. It might be because you love children, or maybe you needed a job and this was the job that was available, or maybe, just maybe, it’s a family business and a total expectation. Perhaps you fell into it because of an entirely different reason. Regardless of how you found yourself in the early childhood education (ECE) field, it has a way of capturing your heart in a way that other industries can’t match. 

The energy and pace of the days are unparalleled.  In no other industry can you have a financial meeting one hour and in the next you are making slime with a bunch of gooey kids. Choosing what to wear in the morning is only the beginning of the decisions that need to be made! 

It’s lonely at the top

ECE leaders are some of the smartest, most dedicated, loyal, honorable, talented, personable,  people I have ever met. Every single day, I am amazed by the leaders in this field. 

With all the knowledge and creativity leaders in this field have to offer, why do ECE leaders feel so lonely? Why is the staff burnout rate so high? 

Have you ever pulled up a chair at a happy hour or gone out to dinner with friends, ready to talk about your day, only to realize the words coming out of your mouth sound like a foreign language to those around you? The problems that we deal with daily, things like mini toilets, broken vacuums, lost socks, sand in water bottles, or teachers moonlighting as strippers, are not common work woe chatter. How about those disgruntled parents who have entirely too much time on their hands? Our problems may sound petty, easy, weird, and generally unrelatable. 

I always liken leadership in the ECE industry to a hamster running on a wheel. You are running and running and running, doing all the right things, yet not going anywhere. Each piece that makes up the ECE industry is a lap around the wheel that you, as the leader, needs to handle: government involvement, regulations, parents, staff, marketing, facilities management, child development, business development. The ECE world is so multifaceted and interconnected yet at the same time disconnected and disorganized. Everything is important and everything takes precedence right now. 

The big ideas

What we handle on a daily basis isn’t what others have to manage. The people who do understand some of the day to day are our staff, and we can’t vent to them - so we get lonely. We do our laps in silence - because no one seems to “get it”.

That’s why it's so lonely at the top…

We can’t talk to our employees about the daily struggles we are going through and our friends and family often don’t relate to the industry. They don’t understand that a team member being 20 minutes late is a matter of compliance and could potentially leave you in an illegal position. As a leader in the ECE field, the weight of the entire world feels like it’s on your shoulders. 

Most leaders have visionary personalities. We think fast, learn fast, and move fast. We have this idea that we can do everything. The truth is, we can’t. The most amazing visionary leaders have a team of people to support, push, and hold them accountable. That’s right. This is a people field; people working with people, for people. 

People are the heartbeat of everything that happens in our programs. 

Our business is the business of people working with people. I can tell you; most people don’t go into leadership in childcare without being passionate about the job. 

The big question is how do we share our passion for the early childhood field and run a successful business without burning out?

The answer is intentionality and organization!

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Ways to reduce loneliness in ECE: Build a healthy program

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What is a healthy program? 

A healthy program, in my perspective, is one that possesses the resilience to endure the inevitable shifts and changes in our dynamic world. 

Over the course of my extensive experience, I've honed a toolkit categorized into what I refer to as the 4R’s of the childcare industry: Retention, Recruitment, Risk Mitigation, and Revenue.

  • Retention: A robust program maintains a workforce by staying abreast of industry trends and cultivating a state-of-the-art work environment. It's about creating a space where every team member feels valued and excited to contribute.
  • Recruitment: An effective program boasts a compelling community image and employs the necessary tools to convert leads, whether they be prospective families or potential staff members. Building a positive reputation within the community is key to attracting the right people.
  • Risk Mitigation: Prioritizing safety through well-defined policies and comprehensive training for all stakeholders is the bedrock of a healthy program. Compliance with state and federal regulations ensures not only the safety of the children we serve but also the program's overall integrity.
  • Revenue Protection: Operating a childcare program as a business is paramount. A financially sound foundation is crucial for sustaining and expanding our impact on families. To serve effectively, we must first meet our bottom line.

The 4R’s as Fancy Sunglasses

I see the 4R’s as distinctive lenses, think, different pairs of fancy sunglasses that offer a comprehensive view of every aspect of our program. 

Whether faced with the need to hire new staff or addressing the intricacies of financial management, these lenses guide our decision-making process, ensuring that every action aligns with the holistic health of our program.

As passionate leaders in the childcare field, our success lies not only in our dedication but also in our strategic approach. By embracing the 4R’s as guiding principles, we can navigate the complexities of our industry with resilience, purpose, and a sustainable vision for the future. 

It’s Lonely at the Top - Or Is It?

Yes, there is no doubt about it, this job is lonely. But you are not alone. You have a community of like minded people ready to link their arms with yours.

It's easy to feel lonely in a role that demands so much. The sleepless nights, the decisions that weigh on your mind, the constant loops around the hamster wheel – it can become overwhelming and make you feel alone. But here's the revelation: there are others walking a similar path. Other owners and directors who share your concerns about the day-to-day intricacies of childcare leadership, from the mundane to the monumental.

Imagine a space where conversations flow seamlessly from discussing curriculum enhancements to the best strategies for tackling budget constraints. Picture a community where the stress of balancing staffing needs is met with understanding nods and shared experiences. This is not a dream; it's a reality waiting to be embraced.

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ECE Leaders Community: Building Bridges, Creating Bonds

Your community is out there, waiting for you to find them. Seek out professional networks such as my company, The Conscious Classroom Certification Model, attend conferences, and engage in online forums, read blogs written by and for ECE leaders. 

Connect with individuals who understand the challenges unique to early childhood leadership. Share your experiences, gain insights from others, and find solace in the fact that you are not alone in your journey.

When you find your people, you'll discover a wealth of collective wisdom. Learn from the successes and failures of your peers. Gain insights into innovative solutions for common challenges. Find inspiration in the stories of resilience and triumph over adversity. 

Together, you can navigate the world of early childhood leadership, armed not only with your individual strengths but also with the collective power of shared knowledge.

As you navigate the nuanced world of early childhood leadership, remember this: You are part of a vibrant community that understands your journey intimately. The challenges you face are not unique to you alone. In connecting with your peers, you not only find support but also contribute to the strength of a collective that is greater than the sum of its parts.

So, sleep well at night, take that vacation, and watch your program thrive. You've earned it, and your community stands ready to celebrate your successes, offer comfort in your challenges, and reinforce the truth that, in the world of early childhood leadership, you are truly not alone.

If you're ready to delve deeper into any of these aspects, explore practical tips, or share your experiences, I invite you to continue this conversation with me at The Conscious Classroom Certification Model (email me at summer@cccmodel.com).

Together, let's nurture success and continue to elevate the standards of childcare leadership.

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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.

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