From Nefertiti B. Poyner, Ed.D. | Early Childhood Specialist & National Trainer
Welcome to 2018! So many of us use the introduction of a new year to make changes for better physical, mental, emotional and even financial well-being. New beginnings can bring about fresh energies and a commitment to do things better. As I reflect on the New Year, however, I think about teachers and staff in early care and education who are not starting anew, rather many of them are right in the middle of a school year that has presented as many challenges as it has joys.
With teachers and staff in mind, I eagerly consented to be a panelist at this year’s National Head Start Association Annual Leadership Conference, which took place in Washington, D.C. from January 22-25. The Winter Leadership Institute offers the Head Start community informative sessions, innovative panels, and invaluable networking events. I was one of the participants in a panel discussion entitled “Innovative Approaches to Staff Development.” Th goal of this session was to talk about how Head Start can work to support and develop its workforce, particularly as it pertains to professional development. I reminded participants of the important message of resilience and how this concept can be a part of not only formal professional development but also can be used during coaching, mentoring and reflective supervision.
After the panel discussion, I was pleased to be able to sit on another panel discussion led by Temple University professor, Dr. Robert Whitaker and members of his research team. Dr. Whitaker is one of the primary researchers of the first-ever survey conducted on the health of Head Start staff. Findings from Dr. Whitakers’ work conclude that women working with children in Head Start programs have poorer physical and mental health than do U.S. women who have similar sociodemographic characteristics. While I was very familiar with this piece of research, I found the research highlights to be very interesting. Consider the following, for example:
- Six physical health conditions – obesity, asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes or prediabetes, severe headache or migraine, and lower back pain – were each between 19-35 percent more common in Head Start staff than in the comparable U.S. population;
- 24 percent of the staff suffered from significant depressive symptoms – enough to be diagnosed with depression;
- 28 percent reported that their physical or mental health was “not good” on half or more of the 30 days prior to the survey;
- 15 percent rated their overall health as either “fair or poor;” and
- Nine percent were absent from work for ten or more days in the last year due to illness.
I was also very interested in the recommendations Dr. Whitaker made for addressing workforce wellness. Suggestions include:
- Making staff wellness part of professional development activities;
- Using available Head Start mental health resources for families and children to also address the mental health needs of the staff;
- Adopting mindfulness-based stress-reduction techniques, now used in other emotionally demanding occupations like health care, to prevent and treat psychological distress in the staff;
- Changing the workplace culture to increase co-worker support and monitor and adjust the demands placed on the staff;
- Incorporating more movement into activities that are designed to promote children’s cognitive and social development; and
- Improving the quality of food served to staff and children.
Above all, my time at this year’s NHSA Leadership Conference served as a moment of continued dedication to understanding and addressing ways to improve workforce wellness in early care and education. I was not alone in this effort, with hundreds of team members from Head Start Programs across the county also present. We met, mingled, talked and laughed. On our final day, we made our way to the Capital to continue to “tell the Head Start Story.” As a special bonus, my husband and two-year old daughter joined me. While my daughter is yet to understand what Mommy does for a living, each day I look at her, I am so thankful to work as part of a team that is leading the way in providing support for workforce wellness. We will get there…we have to. It takes a healthy village to raise a healthy child.