Dr. Walter Gilliam is the Elizabeth Mears and House Jameson Professor of Child Psychiatry & Psychology at Yale Child Study Center and a consultant for Scholastic PreK On My Way™. Jessica Wollman is SVP, General Manager of Curriculum, Scholastic Education Solutions, and a former PreK teacher. Together, they outline key questions for educators to help with the transition to PreK this school year.
Right now, thousands of students nationwide are starting the new school year, and for the youngest children entering PreK, this marks their first-ever school experience. Under typical circumstances, this transition to PreK can be difficult, but in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an added layer of anxiety for teachers, families, and students.
We know that teacher stress is at an all-time high. Researchers at Yale University collected longitudinal data on a national sample of over 57,000 early educators* throughout the pandemic and combined their findings with COVID-19 data from Johns Hopkins and county-level data from the American Communities Survey. This research revealed that early educators’ stress levels are about three times that of pre-pandemic norms, and early educators are about 3–4 times more likely to screen positive for clinical depression compared to the general population before the pandemic.
This stress extends to students as well, with 24% of early educators reporting during the 2020–21 school year having at least 1 child in their program who has had a family member hospitalized for COVID-19, and 12% of early educators reporting that they had at least 1 child in their program who lost a family member to COVID-19.
When asked about the mental health of the children in their care during the 2020–21 school year, 56% of early educators said that at least some of the children in their classroom were more externalizing (aggressive, oppositional, hyperactive, etc.) compared to pre-pandemic, with 16% saying that was true for half or more of the children in their classroom. Approximately 55% said that at least some of the children in their classroom were more internalizing than before the pandemic (shy, withdrawn, worried, etc.), with 10% saying that was true for half or more of the children in their direct care.
How can PreK teachers best prepare to support themselves and their children during this high-stress time? While there may not be one clear cut answer, we have outlined five key questions for PreK teachers to be asking themselves right now, and throughout the school year:
- During these unprecedented times, educators’ personal safety and wellbeing has never been more important—ask yourself: What do I need to feel safe and supported as an educator? What am I doing on a regular basis to take care of myself? If needed, is there a trusted person in my life who can remind me to take care of myself?
- What is different about this academic year and how will those differences affect children and their families?
- How can we reshape expectations to best support our youngest students?
- How can I help children make the transition to PreK, and feel comfortable being away from home?
- How can I best partner with children’s families year-round?
These questions are a starting point—and they will evolve over the course of the year—but we hope they help prompt thinking that will support planning for a successful school year ahead, while also encouraging space for teachers everywhere to consider their own personal safety, needs, and wellness.
Thank you to all of the early educators who continue to support our students each and every day. You persevered during the pandemic when schools closed, you have continued to disinfect every surface multiple times a day, you have figured out how to socially distance exuberant young children, and you have held the stress and worry of children, families, and communities—all while managing your own worries and fears. You are truly unsung heroes and we are deeply appreciative of all that you do.
*Early educators in this study are defined as teachers and directors in the wide array of early care and education settings including public school prekindergarten; special education preschool; Head Start and Early Head Start; child care centers in private, non-profit, faith-affiliated, drop-in, home-based, and other settings.