by Jennifer Baumgartner and Ingrid Anderson
*Figure 1: The Ethical Balancing Act and Figure 2: The Self-Care Problem Solving Pathway can be found in the pdf version of this article.
Early childhood teachers solve problems every day—from guiding children through conflicts that arise on the playground, to communicating with parents about their child’s developmental needs. Problem solving is an essential and daily task for teachers. However, as teachers engage in professional decision making, the emotional toll of this work can be overlooked or diminished. Stress is no stranger to most early childhood teachers, and in 2022, teachers are being asked to make challenging decisions in an enormously complex society. Built on the foundation of the transactional model of stress (Holroyd & Lazarus, 1982; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) and the Ethical Balancing Act (Figure 1), the Self-Care Problem-Solving Pathway (Figure 2), helps teachers move through a series of steps to facilitate intentional consideration of the emotions that accompany and often impede our ability to address complex problems.
The self-care pathway helps teachers address something almost always missed: the feelings involved in the work. The critical work of caring and teaching involves many feelings. As teachers engage in professional problem solving and ethical decision making, there are feelings associated with each decision. Balancing on the NAEYC code of ethics, the self-care pathway helps teachers think through an issue, including their responsibilities, ideals, and principles, in order to identify feelings and unmet needs that can halt forward action.
Navigating the Self-Care Problem-Solving Pathway
To begin, identify a problem that is present in your work. It could be a struggle over a transition, a concern that you need to discuss with a parent, or a conflict with a supervisor. No matter how large or small the issue, using the pathway will help you to think intentionally about the emotions that are triggered by the problem. As you move through the pathway, you will be asked to think through six steps:
1. Identify the problem.
2. How does the problem make me feel?
3. How do I handle my feelings?
4. What is stopping me?
5. How do I move forward?
6. How can I build self-care into my decision making?
These questions are meant to guide you through the process of thinking carefully about your problem, and recognizing the emotions that the situation involves, the motivations that drive your response, the tools you need to make a change, and how to build self-care into your reflective practice. The following story illustrates this process.
Jerri is a teacher in the preschool of a nonprofit community child care center. The center and the staff enjoy a good reputation in the community, and the director is invested in creating a learning environment that is progressive. While Jerri feels supported in some areas, her supervisor seems to dismiss her expressions of stress or frustration at work. This can lead to feelings of isolation and a sense of lack of support. Jerri is hesitant to go to her director, because she does not want to rock the boat or cause problems.
How can Jerri use the self-care pathway to better understand what she needs to do next?
Identify the problem
Jerri considers why she feels unsupported. She realizes she is uncomfortable with the discrepancy between what her director says and what her supervisor does.
How does the problem make me feel?
Jerri feels anxious when she thinks about addressing this problem. She is scared about “rocking the boat” and stepping out. One moment she feels strong in her beliefs and wants to do something, and then other times, she wonders, “What if I just stay quiet? What if my director gets mad at me for complaining about my supervisor?” Noticing these feelings—even and maybe especially those that are complex or conflictual—is an important part of the process. She decides that the way to handle the feelings is to address the problem she has identified.
How do I handle my feelings?
When Jerri stops to think about how she is currently handling her feelings, it makes her realize that she is ignoring the problem. Instead of interacting with her supervisor, Jerri hides—not even going to the break room for a cup of coffee. Instead she isolates herself in her room—eating chocolate for a pick-me-up. She complains about her supervisor to her spouse at home every night.
What is stopping me?
When she thinks through what is stopping her, Jerri realizes that she has concerns about retaliation and her employment. She also feels afraid that confronting her professional concerns will make everyone uncomfortable, and may cause her to lose friends. She realizes that she would like to increase positive feelings about work.
How do I move forward?
When Jerri thinks about moving forward, she realizes she might be able to better address this issue if she had help dealing with the negative emotions toward her supervisor. She would also like to learn more about handling conflict.
How can I build self-care decision making?
Jerri decides to make a plan so that she can take care of herself as she moves through the process of addressing this issue (and others to come.) Speaking with her director is the first step as she looks for people to support her as she solves the problem. Recognizing a need for better tools for handling conflict with supervisors, Jerri finds a good book on the subject and connects with a mentor who can help her practice these skills. To increase positive feelings about work, she decides to set up regular coffee breaks with a colleague who is cheerful and thoughtful. Finally, in order to help keep in touch with her feelings, Jerri starts to journal each night—recording and reflecting on her thoughts and feelings about the day.
When experiencing stress, it can be difficult to make decisions, and too often the result is ineffective responses that are rooted in emotions. The Self-care Problem Solving Pathway is a tool to help early childhood teachers identify and reflect on the emotional work involved in decisions. Use this pathway, balanced with the Code of Ethics, to engage in self-care that will support your work.
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Jennifer Baumgartner, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the school of education and serves as faculty chair of Louisiana State University’s communication across the curriculum program. She teaches in the PK-3 teacher certification program and early childhood education graduate program, facilitating learning around critical issues in early childhood education, child and early education theory, and stress in educational contexts. Her work is published in several journals, including Journal of Health Psychology, Early Child Development and Care, Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, and Young Children. She has experience directing early child development laboratory schools and teaches critical perspectives in early childhood education, child development, and stress in education courses.
Ingrid Anderson, Ed.D., is an associate professor of practice in the college of education at Portland State University. She is faculty and coordinator of the infant toddler mental health graduate certificate (one of the oldest in the United States) and co-coordinator of the master of early childhood: inclusive education degree. Anderson was named researcher of the year for the college of education in 2019. Her research interests include early childhood educator emotional health and wellbeing, and community advocacy for early childhood education. Her new book from Redleaf Press with Jean Barbre is titled “Supporting Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing: A Strength-Based Approach for Early Childhood Educators.”