Many kindergarten and preschool teachers will tell you they love going to work every day. For the most part, these early education professionals have a real passion for what they do and are 100% committed to their young students and their families. What they may not mention is the many challenges facing early childhood education(ECE) today. In reality, there are plenty of preschool issues and problems that even the most dedicated teacher could have a hard time turning a blind eye to. In this article, we’ll address the current state of the field, including the various challenges and opportunities in early childhood education.
Current Issues in Early Childhood Education 2021
While this article will focus on the most current issues in early childhood education (2021), you’ll notice that many of the challenges teachers face today are not new. Instead, they’ve either remained pressing issues or become further complicated by new obstacles or environmental factors. We’ll start with the most obvious problem in the field of ECE exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Pandemic Plunge
For decades, educators of all grades and subject areas have complained about the “summer slide”—that is the decline in academic performance that occurs when their students return to school after a three-month break. Some studies have reported this loss of learning to represent as much as a quarter of all material mastered during the prior school year. Teachers’ concerns over the summer slide could be amplified this year, though, since virtual learning imposed by the pandemic made learning and retention even more challenging for learners.
While the pandemic slide may be of concern for all types of teachers, it could add a significant burden to an already long list of preschool issues and problems. That’s because the learning milestones that must be met during these early years of a student’s academic journey are crucial for his or her long-term success in school. Early literacy goals that are left unmet, for example, can impact a child’s reading and writing abilities for years to come. The same is true for fundamental math skills like spatial and number sense as well as basic adding and subtracting. Thus, one of the main problems faced by kindergarten teachers will be ensuring that kids leave their classrooms with the skills they need to tackle their remaining years in elementary school and beyond.
Long Hours and No Sick Days
Just as a parents’ work is never done, the same is true for the job of an early childhood educator. When you consider the stacks upon stacks of paperwork a preschool or kindergarten teacher is responsible for on top of managing a classroom full of little ones all day, you can probably see why long work hours may be among the many challenges teachers face today.
While this is not a new problem and it certainly isn’t isolated to early childhood environments, it may be one of the bigger preschool issues and problems teachers are currently facing due to federally mandated student-teacher ratios. Since a certain number of trained early education professionals must be present depending on the size of the classroom, serious staffing problems can arise if a teacher takes a day off or calls in sick. Within a school or childcare center, this circumstance can create a pressure cooker scenario where teachers feel compelled to come to school no matter how bad they feel just to keep the peace.
Of course, the obvious answer to this staffing problem is to hire more trained early childhood educators, but there are barriers to this solution, some of which we’ll discuss later in the article. For now, consider how difficult it might be for schools and child care facilities to attract and retain new teachers to the ECE field when they’re unable to pay for the most basic early learning resources.
Declining Mental Health
Early childhood educators need to be their best selves in the classroom, not only for their own sake but for the wellbeing of the youngsters in their care. The problem of declining mental health in the ECE field has a trickle-down effect on little ones, so it’s an issue everyone should care about. Specifically, when teachers feel stressed or overwhelmed in their classroom, their teaching skills suffer and so does their ability to manage the classroom. They may have a shorter fuse with their students or not feel up to providing as much positive reinforcement as children at this age need. A substantial body of evidence has proven that children exposed to too much stress in the early years of life can have tremendous difficulty down the line, including stress disorders and even cognitive impairment. It’s clear that a youngster’s healthy brain development is dependent upon relationships with caring, stable adults who can model positive stress responses.
While the mental health of preschool and kindergarten teachers has long been a concern, the pandemic has only worsened the problem. In Virginia, for instance, 33% of preschool teachers working in public schools reported feeling depressed in 2020, up from just 15% pre-pandemic. And for reasons we’ve already addressed, taking a mental health day was simply out of the question for many of these teachers who suffered in silence for the most part.
When schools across the country turned to remote learning as a way to stay afloat during the pandemic, preschools took it especially hard. That’s because so much of what we know about early childhood learning contradicts the notion that young children can learn effectively online. That is to say research-backed instructional methods like project-based learning and free play, for instance, are hard to replicate via Zoom.
While remote instruction for preschoolers in and of itself tops the list of challenges teachers face today, this problem was compounded mid-pandemic when parents across the United States were given the choice whether to keep their kids at home for virtual instruction or send them back to school for face-to-face learning. That meant that preschool and kindergarten classrooms were divided into two groups, and teachers would be responsible for providing equal instruction to both. In many cases, this meant two separate sets of lesson plans, two sets of grade reports, and not enough time in the day to tackle either task. While parents may have felt empowered by the choice between virtual and regular instruction, for early childhood educators, it only added to the list of preschool issues and problems brought on by Covid-19.
If you’ve read this far, you may think that preschool and kindergarten teachers should be some of the highest-paid professionals in the world. And you’d be right, but unfortunately, this isn’t the case at all. On the contrary, early childhood educators are notoriously underpaid. This is especially true for young teachers just entering the profession and those without an advanced degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), preschool teachers earned a median annual wage of just $31,930 in 2020, and the lowest 10% of earners in the field made just $21,900 per year. Ironically, that puts many preschool teachers who are married with children of their own under the U.S. poverty line. In California, for example, early childhood educators are twice as likely as other employed residents to live in poverty. Despite receiving praise from parents, administrators, and even the community at large, it’s easy to feel underappreciated when you’re working long hours and still can’t make ends meet as an early childhood educator. That feeling can take hold, making teachers feel as if their work is meaningless, which can lead to burnout, another of the key challenges teachers face today.
Lack of Resources
A recent study entitled Closing America’s Education Funding Gaps found that public schools in the United States are underfunded to the tune of $150 billion per year. Moreover, researchers found that this funding gap disproportionally impacted school districts comprised mostly of black and Latinx students. What does this mean for early childhood educators? It means that among the many challenges teachers face today, lack of resources remains one of the most pressing. To make up for the minuscule budgets allotted to classroom materials, many preschool and kindergarten teachers resort to desperate measures to ensure their kids don’t fall behind, even dipping into their own coffers (which are often strapped due to their meager salaries) to bridge the gap. If you were to ask a group of early childhood educators the question: “what are the challenges of a preschool teacher?”, a lack of resources would almost assuredly become a topic of conversation.
Burnout in the teaching profession is real, and it has been for a long time. If you add up all of the kindergarten/preschool issues and problems, it really comes down to the dismal reality that attracting and retaining qualified early childhood educators is becoming increasingly difficult. According to a 2020 study, a whopping 44% of new teachers leave the field of education within the first five years of entering it. To find the many reasons why one only has to ask: what are the challenges of a preschool teacher or kindergarten teacher today? Unfortunately, there are too many to name, but it seems one of the key obstacles that lead to burnout is micromanagement in the profession.
Young educators enter the field bright-eyed and ready to change the world with their creativity and ingenuity only to find out that teaching has become rote and prescribed, thanks to looming accountability protocols, including a growing number of standardized tests they must prepare their young learners to take. Many new teachers feel as if the job they were tasked with is simply impossible, and the pressure is two-fold. Not only do they feel pressured by parents and administrators to perform miracles in the classroom (with little resources, you’ll recall), but they also put undue pressure on themselves to deliver for the kids in their classrooms. When you add in common kindergarten/preschool issues and problems that these children bring from homes like food insecurity, absent parents, emotional and behavioral problems, and even abuse, the mountain can become too steep for a lot of new teachers to climb, especially when they feel unsupported.
Burnout isn’t just a problem for teachers; it affects our nation’s children too. It’s common knowledge that preschool-aged children need stable relationships with adults in order to thrive. When a kid’s teacher leaves the profession due to mounting challenges facing early childhood education today, it can disrupt his or her social and emotional development and lead to missed milestones and gaps in learning later on.
Rewards of Working in Early Childhood Education
At the start of our discussion, we promised to discuss both the challenges and opportunities in early childhood education. While it’s easy to focus on the many problems faced by kindergarten teachers and preschool teachers today, it’s just as important to remember why many of these dedicated educators return to the profession school year after school year. In short, the answer is: the kids.
Perhaps more than any other professional, early childhood educators see the value and promise in children. Deep within, they know what these youngsters can accomplish, and they make supporting these children’s learning and development their primary purpose in life. This is why working in early childhood education is often referred to as a calling. For those who answer it, the intrinsic rewards are many. Seeing a child grasp a new concept, for instance, or forming a bond with a child who has been labeled a “behavior problem,” for instance, is often enough to keep these preschool and kindergarten teachers going strong for months at a time. Of all the potential benefits of teaching at this level, the knowledge that you’re truly making a difference in the world (albeit one child and one lesson at a time), is arguably the greatest reward.
Preschool and kindergarten teachers who are currently making the decision to enter the field should be aware that they will face both challenges and opportunities in early childhood education. If the last year or so has taught us anything, it’s that the challenges teachers face today may not be the same ones they’ll face the following year. Thus, early childhood education teachers must be resilient enough to weather the storms while keeping their passion for guiding little ones burning bright. It isn’t an easy task by any stretch of the imagination, and we would argue that not only does it call for a special type of person, but also the support of individual communities and the nation at large. Many of the problems faced by kindergarten teachers and preschool teachers alike are financial in nature (i.e., low pay and a lack of resources). At a societal level, we must be willing to invest in our future, and that could mean opening our wallets to support early childhood educators and the children they’re responsible for teaching.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS): Occupational Outlook Handbook
- The Century Foundation: U.S. Schools Underfunded by Nearly $150 Billion Annually
- Childcare.gov: Ratios and Group Sizes
- Economic Policy Institute (EPI): Breaking the Silence on Early Child Care and Education Costs
- EdSurge: The Pandemic Was Disastrous for Early Childhood Education
- Fordham Institute: A New Era of Accountability in Education
- Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child: Toxic Stress
- Rewire: Why New Teachers are Burning Out Early
- Scholastic: Summer Slide Statistics & Prevention
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: 2021 Poverty Guidelines
- Education Degree Rankings
- Top 50 Online Colleges for Early Childhood Education (Bachelor’s)
- Master’s in Early Childhood Education Online: Top 25 Values
- Top 40 Accelerated Online Master’s in Education Programs
- Highest Paying Early Childhood Education Jobs
- Top 12 Characteristics of a Great Early Childhood Education Teacher