Public Investments in the Emotional Labor of Early Childhood Education

Professional development system platforms such as career lattices or Registries, QRIS, Licensing, and quality initiatives are gaining traction nationally. The systems are often designed to raise quality by well meaning individuals and agencies that do not always understand the complexity of early childhood.

When I worked for one of these systems, I personally had over 5,400 calls in a single year from early childhood educators and programs trying to make sense one state’s professional development system changes.

These are statements from some of the calls.

“What does this mean for me?”

“I am just so confused and frustrated. I don’t understand how this works.”

“Help me know what to do.”

These calls made me realize that even with an aggressive two-year statewide campaign to inform the field about the changes, the message still wasn’t reaching the educators in the classroom.

The implications became clear. How could professional development initiatives change program quality if early childhood educators don’t understand or connect to the professional development system?  

It made me wonder, what are the experiences of early childhood educators in state professional development systems?

I set about to interview early childhood educators in family child care and center based programs and to read all the research I could find about the intersection of professional development systems and early childhood educators lived experiences.

The lessons learned from this work are: Quality efforts are impacted by uneven professional preparation, low-wages, and need for affordable programs in structures that are largely funded through parent payments. Even when professional development systems are put in place, they are unevenly accessed or embraced.

Digging deeper, I began to examine “Why” behind the uneven participation in the professional development system. Uneven participation links to: “Not knowing systemically who we are in the lives of young children.”

Hargreaves calls the work of teaching, emotional labor. Emotional labor is the relationship between work and our need “to display particular emotional states as part of our jobs.” Emotional labor tends to extract a high personal cost on individuals in fields where these skills are required.

Therefore, many fields such as teaching and social work have rigorous standards to support life skills, reflective practice, and emotional supports that build cohesive professional and societal identities. These identities help individuals stay in their profession, building on the vital combination of education and experiences that is the hallmark of quality programs and services.

Early childhood educators do not have those scaffolds.

Because of uneven professional preparation and highly individualized paths of how they come to the work. Individualized paths lead to subjective professional identity. Subjective professional identity impacts quality of early childhood classrooms

Quality early childhood programs, where the child is understood to be competent, adept at building relationships and constructing knowledge as valued citizen of the world and builder of the future, rest on the quality of interactions with early childhood educators (Golden, 2016).

Investments in quality early childhood programs start with investments in early childhood educators that extend far beyond the technical skills of teaching children.

Investments are needed that embrace the holistic nature of early childhood. Which are based on complex and layered interactions between and among children and adults in the variety environments, program types, and educational philosophies that exist in early childhood today.

The enactment of quality early childhood programs starts with our investments in early childhood educators, who are healthy and whole, and are prepared to scaffold the cognitive, physical, and social-emotional lives of children.

What investments would support you in the emotional labor of teaching?