The Emotional Lives of Early Childhood Educators


In our field, early childhood educators present a certain emotional view to the outside world. The emotions we share with the learning community are a big part of our practice. Being positive, helpful, and involved in the lives of young children, parents, and the larger community is our contribution to the greater good. Our work is rewarding but can be tough physically and emotionally. This is due, in part, to emotional labor.

Author and sociologist Arlie Hochschild who wrote The Managed Heart, Commercialization of Human Feeling, said in an interview for The Atlantic that emotional labor is, “the work, for which you’re paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job. This involves evoking and suppressing feelings. Some jobs require a lot of it, some a little of it.”

At a school-age conference I attended recently, a group of educators came together to share some of the areas in self-care that they struggled with. The number one area of struggle was emotional labor. Other fields engage in emotional labor and they include, nurses, doctors, restaurant staff, police, fire, etc. All of these professions engage with people emotionally on a regular basis in situations that require the practioner to suppress their personal feelings and act in a manner according to the best practices of their field. 

At the conference, many educators shared stories of their struggle with the demands of emotional labor. Reflecting on my work with children what came to mind was the emotions that accompany the work. My emotions. Being professional and engaging in emotional labor provided little space for my true emotions to land. This caused fatigue, influenced decision making, and outcomes in my practice. Wondering what could be done to help gain perspective on my emotions I started searching for practices that would help with the stress of emotional labor. 

The first concept I discovered was emotional self-awareness. This is our ability to understand our emotions and how they affect us in life and in our work with children. Emotional self-awareness is about recognition of what we are feeling and why and invites us to see things as they are and greet them with acceptance. 

Emotional self-awareness is a practice that gives us a more accurate sense of our strengths and weaknesses, plus provides clarity to our work with children. The method I use to incorporate this practice into my work is through journaling. At the end of each workday I consistently write one page about the day reflecting on what happened in the classroom and sometimes this includes the emotions that have been experienced while engaging in emotional labor. 

Another aspect of emotional self-awareness is the ability to harness our emotions and apply them to solving problems. I find that journaling in the evening and then reading my words the next morning gives me a fresh perspective on the emotions of the work or a situation from the previous day and guides me toward a path of understanding and action that benefits my practice with the children.

Finally, an emotional self-awareness practice includes our ability to manage our emotions and others emotions too, this is called emotional intelligence. Our ability to engage with and negotiate with our emotions and the emotions of others is a common practice in our work and a big part of our emotional labor.

While searching for more perspectives on the emotions involved in our work I discovered that a large part of our emotional experiences as early childhood educators is born from a need for understanding. We are trying to understand what children, parents, and the community needs from our position of service and we are trying to understand our role and how much we can give of ourselves physically and emotionally. One idea that may help us visualize our experience is a quote I found from author Steven Covey. In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People he says, “Seek first to understand and then be understood.” 

We cannot control emotions by our will. If we first seek to understand the emotions of others then we can understand our emotions and that leads to us engaging openly with the feelings that come up in our work. Our recognition of others leads to being present with our emotions in an act of mindfulness. If we are caught up in the emotions of the moment and are not seeking to understand others this distracts us from the reality of the moment.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and author, says mindfulness“Is to be aware, it’s the energy that knows what is happening in the present moment.” Maybe the true answer to the experience of emotional labor lies in being present and authentic with our emotions within the classroom. Thich Nhat Hanh continues, “True happiness and true power lie in understanding yourself, accepting yourself, and having confidence in yourself.” 

We can be practicing early childhood educators that serve our communities and help young children and at the same time care for ourselves by engaging with the emotions of our work. We have an opportunity to recognize and accept the emotional labor it takes to be in our field. Our recognition opens the door for us to take steps in our personal and professional journey to nurture our feelings. Then our emotions will not overtake us and become a negative in our life and work. Emotional labor is part of our practice, but it should not be the only skill that defines our work with children.

How do you experience emotional labor in your practice?

What steps do you take to engage with and manage the emotions involved in your work with children?