Prevent Staff Burnout: Practical Tips for Early Education Directors

Early education directors have the difficult task of managing and leading staff in their programs. But when it comes to preventing staff burnout, they can be proactive and implement practices that help protect against it. Educators face unique challenges and stressors, both personally and professionally, which can lead to burnout. For early education directors, it’s important to recognize the signs of burnout and understand the causes in order to prevent it. In this article, we discuss the signs of burnout, ways directors can alleviate teacher burnout, and six practical strategies to cope with stress.

Teacher burnout risk assessment

It’s important for early education directors to assess the risk of teacher burnout for a variety of reasons. Burnout can negatively impact teachers’ professional satisfaction, leading to decreased job performance and morale. In turn, this can result in high rates of staff turnover, which can disrupt program stability and undermine quality standards. Burnout can also lead to physical and mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety which can have a major effect on staff wellbeing and create an unhealthy work environment.
In the classroom, teacher burnout can have a negative impact on children’s learning outcomes. Educators who are drained of energy and motivation may be unable to provide the same quality of teaching that their children need and deserve.
Therefore, early education directors that take the initiative to assess teacher burnout risk can prevent these costly consequences. This can be done through surveys, interviews, and observations of educators. When assessing the risk of teacher burnout, early education directors must also consider factors outside of the workplace.

Burnout can be caused by an accumulation of stressors over time, so it’s important to take into account any issues or changes in the personal lives of teachers, such as family and health concerns. By understanding these individual needs and proactively addressing them, directors can develop targeted strategies to help relieve stress and mitigate burnout risk, creating a workplace culture that nurtures healthy stress management skills.

What does burnout look like?

Teacher burnout is a serious issue that can have major repercussions in the classroom and beyond. According to a survey by EdWeek Research Center, 60% of teachers say they find their job frequently or always stressful, compromising their physical health, sleep and ability to enjoy free time with family or friends.
Burnout is defined by physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by chronic stress and/or dissatisfaction with one’s job. Teachers who are experiencing burnout may demonstrate a range of physical, emotional and behavioral signs that can be difficult to recognize.
Common signs include fatigue, insomnia or sleep disturbances, decreased motivation, increased irritability, and apathy. On an emotional level, teachers may feel overwhelmed, isolated, and hopeless. They may also have difficulty concentrating, lack enthusiasm for their work, or have a negative outlook.
In the classroom, burnout can manifest itself in many different ways. A teacher who is struggling with burnout may appear uninterested or apathetic towards the children, unable to stay organized, or lose focus quickly. They may also have difficulty managing classroom behavior and become disconnected from other teachers, children, and your center’s mission.
Stressed nursery teacher

The stress/burnout cycle

The research behind the stress/burnout cycle has been extensively studied in recent years. In their book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Emily Nagoski, PhD, and Amelia Nagoski, DMA, explore the underlying causes of burnout and identify strategies for preventing it. They make the important distinction that it is not stress that causes burnout but rather the pattern of behaviors and responses to that stress that can lead to unhealthy levels of burnout.
The cycle starts with the onset of too much stress. This could be caused by a sudden change in workload, an unexpected problem to solve, inadequate resources, or a difficult situation at work. For example, in an early education setting, a stressful situation could be a child biting in the classroom. If a teacher suppresses those stressful feelings, doesn’t tell anyone or talk about it, and goes home without ever processing it, the stress can build up and lead to feelings of overwhelm and helplessness. As educators become increasingly overwhelmed by the demands placed on them, they begin to feel drained and unable to cope with their responsibilities.
A healthy approach to the stress/burnout cycle means that a teacher has effective strategies to process their stress, thereby ending the stress cycle. Examples of these strategies include talking to a friend about the stressful situation, or creatively expressing some of their feelings to get the stress out of their bodies. We’ll discuss even more strategies in the next section.

How directors can alleviate teacher burnout

Early education directors can take various steps to reduce teacher burnout and create an environment that addresses stress and burnout before they become unmanageable.
Viewing burnout as a systemic issue, not an individual issue
It’s important for directors to realize that burnout is a systemic issue, not an individual problem. Teaching is a stressful job, and many teachers are underpaid and overworked. Sometimes those are larger issues that one center director can’t solve—it’s often not feasible to pay your teachers more or give them less work. Understanding that this is a larger issue and communicating that to your teachers can help ease any feelings of shame surrounding burnout.
Increasing autonomy for your teachers
By creating an environment that values teachers’ autonomy and encourages open communication, directors can foster an atmosphere of respect and trust. Allowing teachers to have more control over the day-to-day decisions in their classrooms enables them to be more creative and engaged in their work.
For example, if teachers are experiencing a lot of challenging behaviors in the classroom, ask your teachers what they want to do and how they want to solve the problem. Giving them some power over their daily challenges can help prevent feelings of helplessness.
Addressing the symptoms immediately
Bring up any signs of burnout as soon as they appear to avoid stress building up over time. If you notice a teacher seems to be feeling overwhelmed or exhausted, be proactive in discussing your concerns and work together to come up with solutions.
Initiating conversations on what support looks like for your teachers

By having proactive conversations with teachers about their workloads and responsibilities, directors can help identify issues early on before they become serious problems. For example, ask your teachers, “What does support at work look like for you?” Support looks different for everyone. Some people do want to talk about stressful situations and some people don’t. Others just want to be acknowledged for good work. It’s really important to ask your teachers what they specifically want.

Consider asking them what is the most time consuming part of their job. You may be surprised to find that teachers are spending a lot of their time doing things that aren’t effective like writing incident reports or emailing parents. When you understand where your teachers are spending their time, you can put systems in place for them to focus on the work they feel matters most. This practice can help to provide an open forum where teachers can voice their concerns and their feedback can be implemented.
Creating a culture of care
Recent data has shown that having a best friend at work has become more important than ever in the workplace and leads to increased retention and employee engagement. People tend to stay at jobs where they feel cared for and connect with the people they work with.
One way for directors to create a culture of care is to provide support for teachers and foster healthy relationships between employees. This includes recognizing their accomplishments, taking an interest in their personal lives, and sharing personal details about your own life. Directors can also offer additional resources such as team-building activities, professional development opportunities, and access to mental health services.

Six strategies to cope with stress

The common advice given to people who are stressed-out is to practice self-care. However, that sometimes feels like adding another thing to an already overcrowded to-do list. There are plenty of practical strategies available to cope with stress that feel intuitive and easy to accomplish.
1. Deep Breathing.
A deep breathing exercise like the 4-4-8 method can help relax the body and mind by decreasing your heart rate and slowing down your breathing. With the 4-4-8 method, you inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, and exhale for eight counts.
The longer exhale can calm your body and signal to your brain that you are safe. Try starting your meetings with a deep breathing exercise and encourage your staff to take a deep breath the next time they are in a stressful situation.
2. Positive Social Interaction.
Research has found that loneliness is as toxic as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s important to create a workplace that promotes frequent and positive interactions among staff members and families. Remind your staff that you are all in this together and working toward a common goal of helping children learn, grow, and thrive. A tool like brightwheel’s communication feature can allow you to quickly message your staff, respond to questions and foster a sense of community.
3. Laughter.
Laughter is also a great tool for addressing stress—it helps to lighten your mood and dissolve anxious energy. Teaching (and young children) can be very funny. Take the time to share stories about the funny things that children do or the humorous things that happened during the day. Put someone in charge of a “Friday Funny” staff email to lighten the mood after a stressful week. It can be really valuable to find laughter and joy in everyday moments.
4. Physical affection
Studies have shown that a 20 second hug with someone you love can alleviate stress. Hugs can decrease your cortisol (stress) levels and increase oxytocin levels. Encourage your staff to go home and hug a loved one or pet after a particularly stressful day.
5. Crying.
Although there is an appropriate time and place to cry in the workplace, crying can be a cathartic release of emotions which enables us to let go of stressors. Sometimes a big cry is all someone needs to process and move on after an upsetting event.
6. Creative Expression.
Creative expression (e.g. painting, writing, dancing) is a powerful way to express one’s emotions and release built up tension in our bodies. Maybe you incorporate a daily dance party with your class. Figure out what works best for your program and employees.

FAQs about staff burnout

What is the best way to encourage staff to build relationships but in a professional way?
The way that you, as a director, model professional relationships will help your staff build that skill as well. One idea is to implement frequent professional development days or team-building activities, such as ‘lunch and learn’ meetings, where you provide training on a particular topic or staff members can present on or teach a particular skill to other teachers. Encourage your staff to collaborate with and learn from each other. Solid relationships can still be built in a work-focused environment.
How do I know if my staff is experiencing burnout or if it’s a more serious mental health issue?
Experiencing burnout or having a larger mental health issue often go hand in hand and look really similar. It is not up to you to figure out exactly what is going on for your staff. However, it is important to acknowledge it and ask if you can provide any support. It is also helpful if you can point your staff to community resources such as where they can seek therapy.
How do you encourage a teacher to be positive throughout the day to the children, even if they’re having a hard time in their own lives?
If a teacher is struggling with something in their personal life, validate their feelings and let them know you are there to provide support. You could say something like, “I know you’re struggling outside of school. I’m here for you. Let me know if you need to take extra breaks today.” Ask them what support they need to carry out their job duties.

Final thoughts

Teaching is one of the most stressful jobs in the world. It can be especially stressful in an early education setting with children from birth to age 5 who are still developing and growing.
Although early education directors may not be able to change the nature of the job, there are ways you can create a workplace that protects against burnout and prioritizes healthy responses to stress.
Empower your employees by teaching them simple, effective strategies to cope with stress, so they can respond to it in a healthy way and move forward. By recognizing the symptoms of burnout and proactively addressing them, directors can ensure that their program remains a positive and productive environment for both staff and children.