In 2021, The American Rescue Plan Act - also known as the COVID-19 Stimulus Package - passed. Within that $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill, $24 billion went to the Child Care Stabilization Program to support childcare providers and businesses. It made a monumental impact: childcare businesses were able to remain open, pay staff, buy education supplies, and pay their rent and utility bills. Also, as a result of childcare staying open, more parents and caregivers could keep going to work.
The federal funding ended in September 2023 and fears around the childcare crisis - understandably - skyrocketed. A study by the Century Foundation estimated that about 70,000 childcare programs may close as a result of the lost funding, and consequently, about 3.2 million children lose access to care.
Staff turnover has been an ongoing issue in Early Childhood Education (ECE) in the US for a variety of reasons: not feeling respected or valued, being notorious for low wages and poor benefits and for being an emotional job. Today, studies estimate a high employee turnover rate between 26 and 40% in licensed ECE facilities.
Now with less funding, the inability to pay teachers fair salaries and wages will make not only teacher turnover even more likely, but also staff shortages. This is one of the main areas of concern when talking about the current child care crisis.
Of course, there is a lot that the government and society can do to help. But, that will not happen overnight and we need to face the struggles of today. While it is, of course, essential to focus on ways to create a positive work environment for ECE staff, we cannot forget that staff turnover can also negatively affect the children.
Imagine entering the world with no knowledge, no understanding of anything going on around you, and no previous experiences to make sense of new stimuli. Sounds kinda daunting, right?!
Young children are constantly introduced to something entirely new - a new food, a new smell, a new classroom, the first pair of shoes with shoelaces instead of velcro… The list goes on and on. This is why maintaining any type of consistency is essential in early childhood. Consistency means familiarity, which means predictability, which means comfort and safety.
Let’s break it down:
There are three key areas where consistency is important in early childhood: Relationships, Environment and Routine/Schedules. Since we are talking about staff turnover and teacher shortage, let’s dive in a bit more to the importance of consistency in relationships, specifically the child-teacher relationship.
Research has shown that a consistent and positive teacher-child relationship leads to better outcomes in a child’s academic and social-emotional development. Of course, the quality of the relationship also matters. Children deserve genuine and nurturing bonds and relationships with their carers, and specifically in early childhood, teachers are not only educators, but are also caregivers.
In addition to all the benefits of consistency stated above, a reliable and positive teacher-child relationship is essential to successful child development. As ECE educators, you engage with very intimate care routines with children and they absolutely need to feel safe and comfortable with that person. Also, ECE teachers are emotional and social role models for children. Children constantly observe how feelings and emotions - from care and empathy to sadness, to frustration, and more - are expressed. While you are teaching children about emotion regulation and emotional safety through lessons and activities, you are also teaching by doing.
Nevertheless, change is unavoidable, and unfortunately staff turnover is inevitable.
When a staff member leaves, this positive attachment and consistent relationship is interrupted. This can be distressing to a child, especially if it is immediate and unexpected. Suddenly a person who was a consistent part of a child’s routine is suddenly leaving, and as a result, children may become sad, overwhelmed, angry, confused, etc.
Even more, children do not necessarily understand that a teacher is someone’s job. My colleague, Julia Rose, used to be a teacher and she said that her children used to ask her where she worked. When she told them that being their teacher was her job, they would reply, “No, this is nursery school.” This can make the children feel rejected if they think it is a person choosing to no longer be a part of their lives.
At this young age, they are not always able to verbalize or understand their emotions. Instead, children may start unusual behaviors, like refusing to eat their snack or refusing to help with clean-up.
“Staff turnover creates instability in an environment designed to create the safe, stable, and nurturing adult-child relationships that foster children’s learning.”
…and other times of uncertainty, discomfort and change.
However, we cannot overlook the children as they try to navigate, what may be, a distressing time. Of course, how each child reacts to a staff member leaving will be different but here are some general ways to help.
It's important not to shield children from change or situations that might upset them. Instead, we should use age-appropriate and open communication to help guide them through it.
First and foremost, open communication provides a sense of predictability for the children, even during a significant change. If a child arrives to childcare one day and asks, "Where's Ms. Turner?" you can remind them of the prior discussion about her leaving.
Also, open communication allows the children to ask questions and try to make sense of the situation. When children can't comprehend what's occurring, they lack past experiences to draw from to make sense of the situation.
This can lead them to make assumptions and blame themselves, such as thinking, "If I had cleaned up my mess yesterday, then Ms. Turner wouldn't be leaving." Even if a child does not fully understand why Ms. Turner is leaving, it is essential that they know it is not their fault.
A lot of programs worry that parents will be upset about staff turnover but it's always better to be upfront.
Young children spend the majority of their time in childcare or at home. It is always important for ECE staff and caregivers to communicate consistently to create a sense of overlap between both environments for smooth development. Staff-caregiver communication is especially important when a teacher is leaving.
Processing emotions doesn’t just stop as soon as you change environments. A child will likely need to talk about their teacher leaving when they are at home, and it is important that parents are prepared for this.
Also, since young children are not yet always able to identify their emotions, it usually results in behavior changes. If teachers notice certain behaviors during childcare, they should inform the parents and ask if the parents are experiencing the same thing at home, and vice versa. For instance, is the child refusing to eat meals at home too, or just when at childcare? Is the kid throwing toys only at home, or also when at childcare?
To help maintain routine and predictability for the children, the school should encourage families to keep the children’s day-to-day as ‘normal’ as possible outside of the classroom and at home. ECE staff should be notified if there are any other changes happening in the home environment. For example, is a new sibling on the way, or did grandma just visit for the weekend and now left? Or is the child switching from their crib to a “big kid bed.” No matter how small it may feel to us as adults, any change can feel daunting and like a big disruption to the little ones, and juggling too many changes at a time can be very unsettling for them.
Although a staff member leaving may feel like a big change, it is important to remind the children about everything that is staying the same.
Don’t only focus on the bigger things that are staying the same, but also the smaller day-to-day details. The classroom, their peers, and the pick-up/drop-off routine, and also the books on the shelves, the ritual of singing “the clean up song” while cleaning the classroom, and so on.
In order to maintain the routines and rituals that the children are accustomed to, you may need to ask the teacher that is leaving to leave notes about what their day-to-day was like, and what rituals they kept in their classroom.
Since we know staff turnover is inevitable, there are things childcare directors can do to prepare and create a consistent environment preemptively.
One simple way to do this is to name classrooms after animals or shapes. Many childcare centers refer to classrooms by the teacher’s name, like Ms. Turner’s Room. However, if Ms. Turner leaves, then the name of the room also has to change. This is small, but it is another change that the children would have to tolerate.
Also, classrooms should represent the children, so that even if a staff member leaves, the children can still feel as if it is their classroom. For instance, walls should be filled with photos of the children, or decorated with art work that they created. This gives a sense of ownership and belonging to the children, which is so important, specifically during times of transition.
Just like adults, children need to work through and process tougher emotions. Let the child know that it is okay to miss Ms. Turner, even if she left weeks ago.
Children may not have a response when you first tell them. They also may react with unusual behaviors because they do not know how to regulate or express uncomfortable and unfamiliar emotions.
You can give them the space to process distressing emotions through asking open ended questions. If they are still struggling to use their words, use classroom activities to help.
For instance, ask the children how they would like to say thank you and goodbye to Mrs Turner, whether through a letter or a mini classroom celebration, or making a collage for the wall. This gives the children a feeling of ownership and certainty in a situation they have no control over.
Also, incorporate activities about emotions in the lesson plans such as including more books about feelings and overcoming challenging situations.
Use Ms. Turner’s leaving as a time to help children learn emotional awareness and regulation. And importantly, let them know that every emotion - no matter how unfamiliar or uncomfortable - is okay, manageable and temporary.
Children are sponges. It is actually quite impressive. My sister told me that her 2 year old went over to the washing machine and began turning the wheel and pushing the buttons, just as my sister would have done if she was starting a load of laundry. My sister was so surprised! It just shows how observant and receptive children are to all their surroundings.
Children are also emotional-social sponges, absorbing the energy of the adults around them. During times of transition when kids might get more anxious or upset, it's vital for adults to stay calm and in control. This process is known as co-regulation.
Co-regulation is essential for teaching children to handle difficult emotions. Instead of saying, "It's okay, don't cry," you can say something like, "I see you look sad today. Are you feeling sad because you miss Ms. Turner? Would you like to talk about it?" Most importantly, take pauses in between questions and give them time and space to respond.
Remember, remaining calm doesn't mean hiding your own feelings. You can share your emotions in an age-appropriate way. This is a chance to show children that adults also experience uncomfortable feelings and can teach them through modelling how to express and process those emotions.
Change happens all the time, and so a staff member leaving is probably not the first time of uncertainty that a child has had to experience.
Adults can use this as a chance to talk to kids about other changes they've gone through, like getting a new sibling or moving to a new house. This shows them that they've already successfully dealt with uncertainty and tough situations before.
It is also a time to help children understand that change and uncertainty will continue to happen throughout their lives. Help them prepare and feel less overwhelmed by future uncertainty. They can look back at how they overcame this tough transition. Once they successfully get through one unforeseeable change, what’s to stop them from doing it again? Adding to their “experience bank” can teach them resilience, and confidence.
But it's important to acknowledge how kids feel during the change. We can't just say, "you’re okay." When they're struggling, we should teach them coping strategies and tools. This transition can help them figure out what works best for them.
It can be really stressful for other staff members when a staff member leaves. The tasks and responsibilities pile up and it is easy to just feel overwhelmed and frustrated. No matter what support is in place for the staff, we empathize with you during staff turnover and shortages.
With that said, this is another unique opportunity to be able to model for the children. Like I said above, children are sponges. As staff members openly communicate and support each other, the children can observe how adults console other adults in stressful, uncertain times.
This is also a time to remember why you chose the job you did. How rewarding it is to be a part of the children’s development journey and to see them grow into their unique selves. Trying to maintain a positive work environment, no matter how stressful, unpredictable and overwhelming it can be, will positively influence the children, families and community.
Did you find this helpful? Print our guide: 8 ways to help children through staff turnover and staff shortages.
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.