Updated: Aug 25
My days as an early childhood director were memorable ones. It provided me opportunities to not only support high-quality learning experiences for young children but also provide a work environment that nurtured program staff. A work environment that appreciated the unique talents and skill sets of each early childhood educator and afforded them opportunities to grow as professionals and individuals.
One of my pleasures as a program director was seeing the smiles on the staff’s faces when I did something special for them. This could be anything from a gift card from their favorite grocery store or presenting them with a birthday cake on their special day. However, we are in a new era within our profession where program staff may need more than a birthday cake, donuts, or pizza to maintain the morale we seek in order to sustain a positive work climate.
The Covid Pandemic presented challenges and hurdles as it pertains to how directors approach high-quality child care, maintain safe and healthy environments, and keep staff engaged in experiences that truly showcase an appreciation for their dedication and hard work. According to the NAYEC article entitled Creating a Work Environment that Supports Staff Retention, demonstrating appreciation for staff can be achievable at a low cost as long as it is genuine. Program directors must redefine how staff morale is approached in a manner that brings a high-impact response from staff. This approach should include opportunities to connect with staff in intentional, purposeful, and meaningful ways.
However, program directors are stretched to their limits as they continue to find creative ways to keep their classrooms open while they also administrate business operations in a post-Pandemic era. How do they keep on top of their responsibilities and duties as well as create a space for program staff to feel truly appreciated and recognized? It’s not as difficult as it may seem.
Designing effective ways to appreciate staff will require using a little creativity out of their imagination box. This includes ideas that are not expensive or elaborate, yet allows directors to be consistent and sincere in showcasing their love and appreciation for staff. Let me share some simple ways this can be done.
One of the easiest ways to appreciate your staff is by providing them with a sincere and heartfelt thank you. A thank you that is different from those everyday thank yous that you say without even thinking about it. This includes giving the employee your undivided attention, making eye contact, and presenting them with an amazing smile as you thank them and identify specifically what they did. Always remember that a thank you does not always have to be said when an employee goes above and beyond but can be used just to remind staff how much you appreciate them for being a part of your program each day.
Another simple way to build staff morale is finding opportunities to praise and acknowledge the outstanding work of your employees. It is very easy as a director to walk into classrooms and miss the magic that is happening each day as teachers bring learning to life through a variety of play experiences. Directors should try and be intentional in documenting areas that staff members are excelling in. This will allow for opportunities to praise employees for the work they are doing. It’s just as important to also acknowledge the efforts of employees who are making improvements in areas that may have been a challenge for them. It really supports a positive work climate when employees are recognized for excelling in areas as well as employees who are continuing to make milestones towards a goal.
One final thought on approaching staff morale is to manage in a season of empathy. Early childhood educators continue to experience the challenges of a post-covid society, mental health struggles, and just trying to cope with the daily challenges life brings. Now more than ever, it is extremely important that child care directors and managers connect empathetically with their staff.
At times early childhood educators just want to know that someone will be there to support them – someone who understands that the work is hard. There is no better person than the program director to be that voice of empathy and provide the understanding and support teachers need. This can include acknowledging the feelings of staff or providing a teacher who might have had a difficult few first hours in the classroom with a quick mental health break.
Keeping our precious child care staff uplifted and inspired is not an easy task. Yet, with some thinking outside of the box, child care directors can create experiences that manifest themselves into a work climate that is inclusive, positive, and rewarding. Integrating daily experiences that truly showcase the value for early childhood educators is essential in maintaining quality staff. Child care leaders are in a position to support some of the most valuable and essential workers of all – let’s make it count!
~ Jerry Graham, M.A. Ed.,
FirstSpark Quality Improvement Specialist