Early Childhood What the Research Says

6 Challenges for Early Educators as Preschool Growth Halts

By Sarah D. Sparks & Gina Tomko — August 25, 2023 4 min read
Close crop of the back of a pre-school girl's head showing her playing with foam puzzle pieces of shapes and numbers.
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School enrollment for the nation’s youngest learners nosedived during the pandemic—and has yet to fully recover.

Instability in early childhood education could cause long-term problems, not only for public school enrollment more generally, but for schools’ ability to recover academically from the years of pandemic disruption.

The number of students attending preschool and early childhood education had risen steadily in the decade before the pandemic. But according to U.S. Census data, during the pandemic, enrollment for 3- and 4-year-olds crashed to its lowest point in 25 years.

The National Institute for Early Education Research reports that only 17 percent of 3-year-olds and 41 percent of 4-year-olds participated in any early education in 2022. That figure includes all major public preschool programs—state-funded, early special education, and Head Start.

While a majority of states did increase enrollment in state-funded preschool 6 percent of 3-year-olds and 32 percent of 4-year-olds attended state-funded preschool in the 2021-22 school year in the 44 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam that provided public programs. That’s up 13 percent from 2020-21, but still 8 percent below pre-pandemic enrollment.

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Photo of an empty chair and table in a pre-k classroom.
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Policymakers at both the federal and state levels have been trying to reestablish momentum for early childhood education, with growing support from both states and the Biden administration for universal preschool for children ages 3 and up.

But staffing problems could hamstring efforts to boost early childhood enrollment. NIEER’s State of Preschool 2022 report found the majority of 62 state-funded preschool programs it studied in 44 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam in 2022 did not have enough qualified lead teachers.

“We found unprecedented teacher shortages as well as waivers to education and specialized training requirements resulting in fewer qualified teachers in preschool classrooms,” NIEER researchers concluded.

Although teacher shortages have risen across K-12, experts say preschool and early childhood programs face particular challenges.

1. Burnout

Nearly half of all preschool teachers admitted to experiencing high levels of stress and burnout over the past few years, according to a nationwide poll of 2,500 teachers in 2022 by Teaching Strategies, an early childhood training group.

Burnout

Research suggests early childhood educators need more support, via mentoring, training, and professional learning groups, to build their confidence in teaching and handle the psychological and emotional burdens of stress in early childhood classrooms, particularly with children who may arrive with fewer social and coping skills.


2. Mental health

Teaching was already a high-stress job before COVID-19, but since the start of the pandemic, depression among preschool teachers has risen. Research finds the COVID-19 pandemic has led to higher physical, emotional, and financial stress for early childhood educators.

Mental Health

Teachers with poor mental health are associated with more social-emotional and behavior challenges among students, creating a cycle of worsening class climate.

“Factors—particularly a secure attachment between child and caregiver and the emotional and mental well-being of the caregiver—[are] important components of beneficial care,” a National Research Council report finds.

3. Lack of resources

Per-pupil spending on early education has barely budged in the past two decades, after adjusting for inflation. States spent about $6,500 on average for each preschool student in 2022, according to the most recent U.S. Census data.
That’s roughly the same per-pupil spending for early childhood education as 20 years ago, and less than half the $14,400 spent per public school student in K-12 overall, Census data show. Spending for preschool has increased about $400 per student since 2019-20, but NIEER found most of this increase comes from pandemic recovery funds, which are scheduled to expire.


4. Low compensation

The demand for early childhood educators is growing three times as fast as the average growth for all U.S. occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with 15 percent more teachers predicted for these grades through 2031.

But the BLS also finds early childhood educators earn an average annual wage of $30,210 in the United States—less than half that for all K-12 public teachers.

low compensation

Seventeen of the 62 state-funded early childhood programs NIEER studied in its State of Preschool report have begun offering recruiting and retention incentive pay.


5. Professional development

Professional development can be a key way to retain early childhood teachers, but studies find they are less likely than teachers of higher grades to get that support.

Only five states—Alabama, Hawaii, Michigan, Mississippi, and Rhode Island—meet all 10 national benchmarks for program quality, including implementing standards for child development and providing teacher professional development, the NIEER report finds.

Of 62 state-funded preschool programs NIEER studied in 44 states and the District of Columbia, 50 require their lead teachers to have specialized training in early childhood education and only 18 provide individual professional development plans with at least 15 hours per year of training and coaching for teachers and assistants.

PD

That’s a problem, because the Teaching Strategies survey found 7 out of 10 early childhood educators reported more job satisfaction when they had access to high-quality, ongoing training, and 65 percent of preschool educators who plan to leave teaching said they didn’t have access to such professional development.


6. Technology

Educators of early learning have had to keep up with ever-changing technologies from year to year and decide how to best integrate technology into the classroom.

A 2019 research analysis found early childhood teachers are more likely to believe technology can be damaging for young children and less likely to know how to integrate it effectively in the classroom.

technology

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