Identifying primary and secondary stressors, buffers, and supports that impact ECE teacher wellbeing: implications for teacher education

May, 2021

Source: Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 42:2, 143-161

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In the current study the authors aim to identify how some early care and education (ECE) teachers experience stressors as a part of their work and what conditions and circumstances buffer these stressors, enabling them to provide the highest quality care to young children.
Additionally, they hope to learn from the involved teachers themselves what supports they need and their perspective on professional development as a strategy for reducing stress.
In doing so, we will be better positioned to understand which circumstances impacting ECE teacher stress are amenable to change via professional development and how to design stress-reduction interventions that are likely to be well-received by teachers.
To understand teachers’ experiences, the authors conducted focus groups with lead and co-lead teachers working in center-based early childhood care and education programs.
They asked teachers about how they believe others perceive and value their profession, and if these perceptions influence their work.
They also asked ECE teachers about sources of stress from their work, the conditions they feel contribute to, or reduce, their feelings of stress, and the types of strategies they typically use to manage work stressors, and what kinds of supports they feel are needed.
After the focus group interviews, the team of four coders applied an iterative coding process to the interview data to first identify emergent themes.
They then revisited the data to apply the concepts of the Stress Process model and address the following research questions:
RQ1: What are the types of stressors and buffers impacting ECE teachers in the study?
RQ2: What supports do ECE teacher-participants identify that may help ameliorate their work-related stress?


The present study is a qualitative exploration of the stressors facing early childhood educators using a case study design.
The authors elected to collect data through focus groups to take advantage of the relative efficiency of focus groups compared to individual interviews as well as to enable participants to engage with one another, potentially generating themes that would not have emerged through individual interactions (Stewart & Shamdasani, 2014).
The focus group process allowed group participants to work together to craft a joint response to the authors’ queries, enhancing the reliability of their results as group participants validated members’ responses in real-time (Acocella, 2012).

Participants were 10 ECE teachers working in center-based child care programs in a large Midwestern city.
They were recruited as part of a wider study to understand ECE teacher stress and the impact of a professional development intervention.
To be eligible for this study, participants needed to be lead or co-lead teachers in classrooms serving infants, toddlers, or preschoolers.
Three focus groups were held in an on-campus location that was fully accessible to study participants via private car or public transportation.
A total of 10 participants out of an original sample of 19 ultimately participated in the focus group discussion phase.

The authors collected data within a series of three focus groups of approximately 90 minutes each.
Focus group questions centered around participants’ professional identities, common stressors, and their ideas for alleviating stress.
Focus group facilitators asked additional follow-up questions for clarification and participants were encouraged to expand upon their responses and the responses of others.
Participants also completed a brief questionnaire at the end of the focus group to collect demographic information as well as any feedback they had.

Focus group protocol

The focus group interviews centered around the inter- and intra-personal experiences ECE teachers have that may inform their self-concept and create feelings of stress.
The authors also asked about more general stressors that may impact their wellbeing, teachers’ perceptions of what may alleviate their stressors, and their perspectives toward professional development interventions to reduce stress.
The questions were all open-ended, allowing participants to direct the conversation in ways that were meaningful to them, and the interview process was semi-structured, enabling participants and facilitators to engage in conversation with one another.
The team created the guiding questions based on their previous experiences as ECE teachers and working with them.

Results and discussion
When teachers in this study spoke of situations that created stress, they most often referred to circumstances that were coded as primary stressors. There was a general consensus across all three focus groups that these stressors are simply a part of the job – that they are inherent in the work that teachers do (e.g., appropriately attending to the needs of all children in their classroom, managing relationships with colleagues and parents).
While participants spoke of these circumstances as stressful at times, they also described strategies they used to manage these pressures such as developing strong routines and turning to colleagues for support.
These primary stressors were stressful but did not necessarily create distress, which suggests that the teachers in our study were able to mitigate the negative impact of these stressors on their wellbeing.
Much less commonly reported by participants in the study were the secondary stressors of role strain and intrapsychic conflict, which occurred almost exclusively in the focus group containing teachers from highly-rated programs.
These stressors appeared to be symptomatic of larger problems in the field of ECE (e.g. turnover and insufficient staffing leading to role strain, teachers feeling undervalued by those important to them leading to intrapsychic conflict).
In contrast to teachers’ ability to effectively cope with the primary stressors, teachers discussing these secondary stressors identified them as both stressful and distressing, suggesting that they are likely to negatively impact teachers’ wellbeing.
Regarding the buffers that ECE teachers identified, these aligned well with the Stress Process model’s focus on coping strategies and social support (Pearlin et al., 1990).
Indeed, participants expressed agency in the ways they actively worked to combat or prevent some of the stressors inherent in their work, from ensuring they knew where everything was for the day, that necessary supplies were stocked and ready, and their ability to control the activities taking place in their classrooms.
In addition, they shared various “stress-reduction” or resiliency approaches such as taking deep breaths, reminding themselves of the positive, or taking a break when they could.
From coworkers lending a “helping hand,” to having a teaching partner who helped to balance their own personal style (e.g., someone to remember the drop cloth when you’re ready to do a messy art project) and the warm relationships amongst co-teachers that sustain a positive vibe in the classroom, ECE teachers also shared that social support helped to reduce their stress.
All of these approaches are also aligned with teachers’ awareness of themselves as teachers (Rodriguez et al., 2020) and their ability to promote social emotional wellbeing in themselves and their classrooms by controlling some aspects of their environment and their emotional responses.
When speaking of the supports needed to alleviate stress, the participants in each of the three different focus groups tended to emphasize different ideas. Those working within high-quality centers spoke of targeting inequities in the field (e.g., differences in benefits, such as paid planning time) through the creation of policies to standardize the resources available to all ECE teachers (e.g., requiring that programs had sufficient substitutes on hand).
Those working within mid-range quality centers tended to emphasize tangible supports to help reduce primary stressors (e.g., having more staff to help meet the cleaning and sanitizing needs), as well as noting the need for common-sense policy reforms (e.g., streamlining paperwork so that staff did not have to repeatedly handwrite the same information in a multitude of places).
Finally, those working within the lowest quality centers highlighted the importance of having a strong director or administrator as a critical way to help reduce stress, which echoes other research on ECE teacher wellbeing that indicates teachers experience better psychological wellbeing when they feel well supported by administrators (Hur, Jeon, & Buettner, 2016; Whitaker et al., 2015; Zinsser et al., 2016).
Teachers from the lowest-rated centers also identified a need for additional training and supports as a primary way to ameliorate their stress.
Across the focus groups, most participating teachers noted that additional training and education could be helpful and offered several specific suggestions that could enhance future ECE professional development offerings.
In addition, the teachers noted that training on communication with parents or colleagues could be useful in reducing stress, as well as the ability to talk with and learn from colleagues in other centers.
The group from the lowest-quality centers indicated they preferred that training take place in person to facilitate the exchange of ideas amongst attendees.
This echoes previous findings that coaching and mentorship appear to be promising strategies to increase ECE teacher competence (Artman-Meeker et al., 2015; Pianta et al., 2017; Snyder et al., 2012) and suggests that online trainings may be poorly received by some ECE teachers, which has particular relevance as professional development interventions are increasingly moving online in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Notably, participants from Group A, which consisted of participants from the highest rated programs, were generally more skeptical of the value of training initiatives for reducing stress than the other groups, perhaps because they likely already held higher education credentials (as teacher credentials are an essential component of reaching higher quality ratings in the study state), or because they engaged in more training and PD efforts and found little impact on their stress levels as a result.
However, even this group did endorse potential value of training, depending on what it targeted, recognizing there may be many different stressors facing ECE teachers.
As this research emphasized, ECE providers face many stressors that may impact the quality of their work, only some of which may be mitigated by professional development and training.
These stressors and the types of supports needed to address them may vary by program.
Training was identified by the teachers within the sample as a potential avenue for alleviating stress and enhancing wellbeing, but there were differences in the degree to which participants felt training would reduce their stress and the topics they thought would have the most value.
Overall, the findings from this study add to our knowledge of the specific subset of stressors we can potentially target through training interventions (e.g., primary stressors inherent in the work), as well as the coping strategies and social support structures that some ECE teachers are successfully leveraging to combat this stress.
These findings offer critical anchors on which to build or enhance teacher training and professional development efforts that aim to increase ECE teacher wellbeing.

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Updated: Sep. 24, 2021