The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the essential role families play in their children’s lives and the importance of supporting them in their role. The early childhood workforce (ECW) plays a central role both in children’s and families’ lives. While striving to preserve their professional identity and their well-being, the ECW plays a significant role during the crisis in supporting the families and the children they serve and ensuring that they have access to a continuum of services and assistance they need. ECW also significantly contributes to preserving the economy and adequate societal responses to the crisis.
While understanding the needs of the children and the families and responsively addressing their needs is crucial, it is equally important to understand the challenges and successes the ECW face in their daily work.
The Early Childhood Workforce Initiative Position Statement on COVID-19 has stressed that now is the right moment to elevate the voices of the ECW. Their lessons learned, and insights can help bring about informed decisions and mitigation measures that respond to the needs that have arisen.
This article provides a snapshot of the challenges and opportunities generated due to the COVID-19 pandemic through the ECD workforce’s eyes and lived experiences.
Members of the ECW worldwide are speaking out for themselves, and at the same time, are acting as “the voice of children” (Line Alvheim Elmore, preschool teacher, Union representative, and special education teacher).
What are the key challenges voiced by the early childhood workforce?
Key challenges voiced by ECW:
- Frontline workforce's mental health and well-being
- Effective leadership
- Expanded training and guidance
- Investment in skills and equipment
- Job and wage security
- Serving and protecting children and families living in vulnerable conditions
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact not only on young children and their families but also on those providing services to them. Families’ needs have intensified. At the same time, so has the role of the ECD workforce, which has struggled to find effective and sustainable ways to support the families and children, while at the same time ensure their own well-being.
The crisis has highlighted already existing problems and brought new challenges to the forefront. As revealed from the interviews conducted, existing difficulties that have been accelerated include but are not limited to heavy workloads, high ratios that are not aligned to quality standards, working in silos and not being able to deliver the services in an equitable way.
Frontline workforce’s mental health and well-being
All interviewees express their concern about the well-being and mental health of the families and children they work with. At the same time, their answers revealed that it is essential to preserve their own mental health and well-being in order to support those recieving their services.
As Dr. Shafraz Kazia (Kenya) highlights: “The pandemic has taught me a lot about being resilient, taking care of myself both physically and mentally, as I am aware that I cannot fill someone else’s glass when mine is empty”.
Luciano Ramos, Social Program Coordinator (Brazil), also shared: “[The pandemic] shows me that I need to take better care of myself to take care of others. It reminds me of in-flight rules, ‘secure your oxygen mask first, and then assist the other person’.”
Leadership also has a vital role to play. Within a crisis mode, effective leadership has a tangible effect on the workforce and can prevent burn out and turnover of the workforce. Leaders have to be compassionate and realistic simultaneously. They need to support the workforce and create an open space to discuss dilemmas and problems and co-construct effective solutions. On the other hand, they should find effective ways to learn about and be empathetic to the workforce’s personal and professional needs and allow time to deal with the uncertainty at many levels. Supporting and promoting self-care is paramount. Iris Lim, preschool principal from Singapore, discusses how she supported her five center leaders and their teams: “ I had weekly meetings to keep in touch with the leaders to make sure they are doing well. These meetings are also a safe space for them to share their challenges and for us to find solutions.”
The leaders’ role in promoting and sustaining frontline workers’ well-being further highlights the necessity to address the leaders’ and managers’ needs, too, to help them stay calm, focused, empathetic, and capable of taking well-thought professional decisions.
Expansion of training and guidance in unprecedented contexts
Interviewees also highlighted the need to expand the training and guidance both at pre-service and in-service levels. As captured through the interviews, although professionals are doing their best to continue providing services in different forms, in many cases they were not prepared to do so. Initial training programs have not prepared the workforce to deal with issues that have arisen during the pandemic (e.g., the virus itself, providing services in emergencies and crisis, providing services online, etc.).
Apart from reconsidering the pre-service training curricula, it is also important to provide opportunities for in-service training and continuous professional development to managers and staff in order to address new challenges and achieve aims that may have been altered during the pandemic.
“Medical and nursing school never prepared us for what we are facing right now; however, we are learning something new about the virus every day.”
Dr. Shafraz Kazia, Kenya
Investment in skills and equipment
In many cases, professionals lack the technical skills required to convert and deliver services online, which calls for investment in technology literacy of ECW. Radha Pandey, Deputy Manager at Mobile Creches in India, remarks: “As an individual, I have learned how to work with technology and reach out to many people. I never thought that I could use technology to the extent that I do today”. Laxmi Roka, the Project Supervisor at Mobile Creches, describes how she struggled to adapt to technology, how her children helped her get acquainted with technology and how she helped her team members.
Yet, investing in technology literacy and equipment should go beyond the individual level to the institutional level. As highlighted by Khin May Tun Chit, a national consultant from Myanmar, even if the personnel are willing and ready to provide services online, there are many delays/problems related to technical aspects. Additionally, platforms and services are not adequately designed to support the provision of services to families and children.
Job and wage security
Protecting jobs and wages has always been a major concern in the ECD field, as highlighted in the ECWI position statement on COVID-19.
Khin May Tun Chit (Myanmar) stresses that the disruption of services may negatively impact families and children due to financial difficulties that the workforce is experiencing. Many may be forced to leave the profession and find other sources of income.
In addition, during the crisis, local and national policymakers’ attention has been focused primarily to other sectors, such as health. Combating the pandemic effects with a short-term vision puts at risk the opportunity to build competent and resilient ECD systems that can ensure a holistic support for families and children. The short-sighted vision has implications for the sustainability of the early childhood services and the personnel. Higher investments will be needed to compensate for the inadequacy in providing timely interventions.
Ingvild Aga, preschool teacher (Norway), told the ECWI team about her concerns: “Another thing has been the cuts in the funding from the community where I live. They are cutting back the budget, so we have to save money on everything. [...] It’s quite a challenge when we need to have temporary people. So, when people get sick, we won’t have people here to cover. A staff shortage is concerning. I think we are also concerned about having time to organize with some of the new rules”.
Given the many changes and pressures in working arrangements taking place during the pandemic Line Alvheim Elmore and Ingvild Aga, suggest for the workforce to be organized in unions, as they can play an active role in supporting the rights of professionals.
Many interviewees expressed concerns for children living in vulnerable, low-income, or minority communities or remote areas with limited or no access to services and resources during the pandemic.
As Gehleigbe Bobson Bleh, a professor from Liberia is stating: “ I am concerned about the health and welfare of children growing up in vulnerable circumstances, homes where parents cannot afford to feed and provide medical care for their children. Recently, there have been alarming incidents of violence perpetrated against young children, especially girls. The well-being of children is at stake in my country during this COVID-19.”
His worries are shared by Vera Scholten, a nurse from the Netherlands: “I work in a neighborhood with a low socio-economic status. Most families are living in strained circumstances with fewer resources. I’m concerned about the consequences for the well-being of parents and their children.”
Some of the ECW members expressed that they feel the same about the personnel engaged with vulnerable communities and groups. It seems that children, families, and the workforce in rural and impoverished areas are becoming invisible.
When it comes to children with disabilities, more resources and new strategies are needed to reduce parents’ stress and keep children motivated and engaged. It is also challenging to fundraise for programs supporting families and children with disabilities because “funders are more likely to address emergency services such as food, shelter, unemployment, and dealing with severe poverty” (Anne Sivanathan, the founder and executive director of the Inclusive Outdoor Classroom (IOC) - Malaysia).
“…Stress and health of people and especially children are worrying… in a rural area where there is a lack of health care, public services, among others because the state forgot vulnerable populations… I believe that there is no safety for teachers or students as schools do not have adequate infrastructure…”
Maria Luisa Martinez Gonzelez, preschool teacher, Colombia
Opportunities for change amidst the pandemic?
Despite the many challenges that have been created, the pandemic has created an opportunity for resolving some pre-existing problems.
The child-adult ratio
Adult to child ratio is one key structural indicator associated with the quality of the services provided and the quality of the ECW’s working conditions. Research results highlight that the adult/child ratio is correlated with better interactions among children and staff, less stress for educators, and better child development.
Line Alvheim Elmore (Norway) stresses the COVID-19 pandemic has created an opportunity for ensuring a better staff-child ratio: “For years, we have been advocating the need for a lower ratio children/staff throughout the day. COVID-19 made that an absolute necessity and underscored the benefit to the children – like we knew it would”.
Cooperation and partnerships
As revealed by many of the interviews, the pandemic has created an opportunity to work collectively to support families and children and one another. Partnerships across sectors and levels have been established to support organizational aims and strategies. Cooperative and collective mode proved to be more efficient in ensuring that the families’ and children’s diverse needs are met holistically, compared to working in silos.
Anne Sivanathan (Malaysia) highlights: “the IOC learned that partnerships are essential. The IOC has an excellent working relationship with its local government. This public/private partnership has proven to be invaluable to the community. The IOC brings program knowledge and expertise, while the government provides in-kind space and services to the partnership. Together it is a perfect marriage”.
The use of technology can enhance outreach. This new mode of delivering services has many downsides, but it allowed many professionals to extend their reach beyond the regular limitations. While remains questionable if by being provided online the early childhood services can reach quality outcomes for children and families, it is a certainty that more time would be needed to perfect the art of providing them online at their highest effectiveness. However, several of our interviewees mentioned that they were happy with the opportunity to “go online”. Though many aspects of her work cannot be done online, Netali Zamir shares that her “family dance” workshop on Zoom has been an enormous success.
Luciano Ramos (Brazil) also describes how his program, which promotes care skills in male caregivers, has been able to connect with a wider audience “...the crisis is an opportunity to change strategies and broaden the vision. Workshops with online activities allow the methodologies with which I work to reach more people throughout Brazil. During this pandemic, we've been able to connect with more men."
Solidarity, creativity, and pride
During the COVID-19 crisis, ECW demonstrated commitment, openness, flexibility, resilience, and readiness to change and adapt usual practices to serve families and young children. They also showed creativity in searching for solutions, even in the most challenging circumstances.
“We are like magicians… (we tried) to generate new learning spaces with different strategies, according to the characteristics and needs of students (internet, radio, telephone, personal contacts), to make this time more bearable…”
Doris Galeano Alonso, educator, Colombia
The strong sense of camaraderie and pride echoes throughout the interviews, presenting a meaningful opportunity for empathy, connection, and understanding across the workforce, regions, and countries. Interviewees reported feeling in awe of their colleagues and seeing their co-workers’ work in a new light.
Vera Scholten, a nurse in the Netherlands, working in youth care and home visiting, expresses her admiration for her colleagues as they showcased their professionalism with little time or guidance to prepare:
“In a short period, we have been able to adapt our work to the current circumstances. Not everything is perfect and optimal, but we all do our best, and we can be proud of that… Additionally, I have experienced first-hand how quickly we have adapted ourselves in a short period. Beautiful, new ideas and initiatives have sprung up everywhere to support children and families.”
Time to Act
The ECW's lived experiences featured under the Voices from the Field Campaign align with and enrich the five priority actions outlined in the ECWI position statement on COVID-19 that governments, civil society organizations, and funding agencies must take protect, support, and strengthen the ECW.
- Respect and recognize ECD workforce: Open the floor to ECW, treat them with respect, listen to and address their needs, and co-construct the solutions needed to overcome the challenges created by the crisis. Their stories prove the essential role they have, and now more than ever, it is imperative to recognize it.
- Prioritize health, safety, and psychosocial well-being of the workforce: It is well known that the ECW's working conditions highly correlate with burnout and attrition rates. During the pandemic, exposure to health-related risks and stressors, which place a tremendous burden on the workforce, has been amplified. The interviews show that finding ways to maintain their well-being and the well-being of the families and children represent the highest priority for ECW. Leaders, managers, and peers' critical role in preserving the workforce's physical and mental health is key. Workplace policies and practices need to safeguard the workforce's health, safety, and psychosocial well-being.
- Improve working conditions and protect wages and jobs: The ECW was among the essential frontline workers combating the pandemic's immediate consequences. More than ever, their critical role in supporting children, families, and society is unquestionable. However, many of them face the risk of losing their jobs and having to change their career path due to, among other reasons, inadequate compensation. Policymakers and governments should prioritize policies that safeguard jobs and wages for the ECD workforce.
- Use the knowledge and experience generated during the pandemic to improve the preparation and professional development of the ECW: The pandemic has caught all of us unprepared. The ECD workforce is being confronted with new demands that require new knowledge and skills. As highlighted by most interviewees, it is the first time they had to use technology to deliver their programs. Some did not know how to use technology, whereas others were not prepared to respond to specific issues emerging during the pandemic. Their pre-service preparation programs had not provided knowledge and skills for using technology in their professions. Re-examining the curricula of the pre-service and in-service training institutions is imperative. Technology literacy should be part of the pre-and in-service training curricula so that ECW can adequately and timely react to the needs of the families and children. Companies should also be encouraged to develop software that are tailored to the needs of services delivered by the ECW.
- Include ECD workforce in introducing changes and developing COVID-19 response Governments, civil society organizations, and funding agencies should make sure to sustain the opportunities for change that have been created during the pandemic. Some interviewees stressed that they fear that positive changes made during the pandemic will be forgotten. As teachers from Colombia stated, "We need to stop and reflect" on lessons learned during the pandemic. We need to preserve best practices and revisit the focus of our efforts if we want to provide children with a better present and future, directly and through supporting those who care for them: their families and the ECW.
- Nurture solidarity and peer support among ECW: The ECW has been exemplary as they stand in solidarity and support each other and families and children. That can serve as a good ground and a starting point for intersectoral cooperation, collaborative learning, and, equally important, organizing in unions.
Most interviewees sent a clear message to families with children that they are not alone; they are here for them. Now it is time for policymakers, civil society, and funders to send the same message, "We see you; you are not alone" to the entire early childhood workforce who worked on the frontline and eased the crisis's effects.