Educator Work Environments Are Children’s Learning Environments: How and Why They Should Be Improved

Early Educator Preparation Is Important, But Work Environments Matter, Too

Teacher practice that supports children’s learning and development requires well-prepared educators and supportive working conditions. Strategies to improve the quality of early care and education (ECE) through increased professional development and education for individual members of the workforce have historically dominated policy and practice for good reason. Yet, early educator work environments — the on-the-job supports that teachers need in order to help children succeed — have routinely been overlooked in quality improvement efforts even though these supports are just as important as training.

Many educators in the United States are in economic distress and work in settings that do not provide sufficient workplace supports necessary to engage in effective teaching. Yet, early educator work environments are children’s learning environments: children depend on educators who are not only skilled, but have their well-being and needs supported, too. Just as children’s environments can support or impede their learning, teachers’ work environments can promote or hinder teachers’ practice and ongoing skill development. 

What Does A Supportive Work Environment Look Like? 

A good work environment requires appropriate pay, benefits, and opportunities for ongoing learning. But much more matters — policies and practices shape the climate of the workplace. Being able to depend on certain benefits, like paid time off when sick or to take care of family members, is an important contributor to a good work environment and so are supports that enable good teaching practice, such as sufficient staffing, paid non-child contact time for completion of professional responsibilities and reflection with colleagues, and opportunities to provide input into decisions that affect programs, classrooms, or teaching practices.

To raise awareness about the urgency of addressing work environments in quality improvement strategies, our research center developed the Supportive Environmental Quality Underlying Adult Learning tool, or SEQUAL. SEQUAL captures teachers’ perspectives on their existing work environments and brings their voices into quality improvement efforts. A multi-purpose validated tool, SEQUAL addresses five critical areas of teachers’ work environments: teaching supports; learning opportunities; policies and practices that support teaching staff initiative and teamwork; adult well-being; and how supervisors and program leaders interact with staff to support their teaching practice.

Graphic describing the sequal domains: teaching supports, learning community, job crafting, adult well-being, program leadership

Without Supportive Work Environments, Teacher Well-Being and Program Quality Suffer

Early childhood teachers routinely face insufficient teaching supports, as demonstrated by CSCCE’s latest SEQUAL studies in several states. A recurring theme throughout each study pertained to the lack of time: either lack of time to carefully observe children in their classrooms or lack of paid time to complete professional responsibilities (including planning) and consequently having to complete these tasks during unpaid hours.

  • For example, in CSCCE’s SEQUAL study of early educators in the state of New York, less than one-half (49%) of teaching staff had sufficient time each week to carefully observe children, and less than one-quarter (23%) reported paid time, without the responsibility for children, for planning. Additionally, more than one-half (52%) of teaching staff assessed the ability to take paid breaks during their workday as undependable, although required by law in most instances. 
  • Additionally, as a result of high churn in the field, insufficient levels of staffing impacted early educators’ practice and work with children in their care. In CSCCE’s SEQUAL study of early educators in Minnesota, almost three-fourths (70%) reported staffing levels that were insufficient for providing children in their classroom with individual attention. 

Beyond lacking sufficient time to complete important tasks necessary to their jobs, many ECE teachers face economic insecurity because of their low pay. SEQUAL studies also documented the impact low wages have on well-being: many early educators report worrying about paying monthly bills, housing costs, routine health care expenses, and even feeding their families (see the table “Percentage of Early Educators With Economic Worry in Four States,” below).

“It is hard to be completely present in your teaching when you are constantly worried about other things such as how am I going to make ends meet or if your child is okay because you had to send them to school sick because you couldn’t afford to stay home with them.”

ECE Teacher, New York

Research has confirmed a link between less economic worry and better well-being of early educators and higher-quality interactions between teacher and child that are so crucial to facilitating young children’s learning and development. Working with young children is a physically demanding job, and low pay coupled with inadequate working conditions can exacerbate stress and burnout.

Bar charts comparing the percentage of early educators with economic worry in four states: Alameda County (CA), New York, Minnesota, Miami-Dade County (FL)

Moving Forward: Standards for Early Educator Work Environments

The voices and experiences of early childhood educators must be valued and placed at the center of decisions about strengthening and improving the environments in which they work. Expectations have risen without regard to the conditions and supports early educators need to effectively apply their knowledge and skills. Quality improvement initiatives have consistently missed the mark when addressing the needs of the workforce: workforce-related standards have predominantly been centered on increasing opportunities for education and training, with little attention to standards for improving work environments and adult well-being.

Existing Models for Adopting Early Educator Work Environment Standards

More than two decades ago, early educators in centers and home-based programs led an effort to articulate standards for their work environments to support their teaching practice. Recently updated, the Model Work Stands for Centers and Homes continue to provide a vision for ensuring ECE teachers’ rights and meeting their needs in the classroom in the United States.

Internationally, the importance of teacher work environments for quality early care and education is increasingly recognized. In 2014, the International Labour Organization (ILO) published Policy Guidelines on the Promotion of Decent Work for Early Childhood Education Personnel — the first international text to specifically articulate standards for the work environments of early educators. In 2018, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conducted the first international survey focusing on the ECE workforce, including information on the quality of their work environments and work-related stress.

Supportive work environments ultimately must be implemented at the program level in both centers and homes providing ECE, but federal and state leaders should likewise take steps to strengthen early educator work environments. Some suggestions are:

  • Adopt workplace standards, such as guidance on appropriate levels of paid planning time, which are necessary for educators to engage in professional practice to support children’s
    development and learning and to alleviate conditions that cause educator stress.
  • Revise Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) scoring criteria and other state guidelines or requirements (licensing, competencies) accordingly. 
  • Identify strategies for the field to learn about work environment issues, including how topics can be implemented in training and higher education for both ECE teachers and leadership. 
  • Provide financial resources and technical assistance to enable programs and providers to implement standards in a reasonable period of time and sustain compliance with these standards over time. 
  • Regularly collect data from early educators to assess how they experience work environment standards. 
  • Assess worker protections and possible remedies (e.g., California’s whistleblowing law) available to ECE staff to ensure enforcement of work environment standards.