It goes without saying that the first five years of a child’s life really matter. In recent years, public understanding of the importance of this period in a child’s life, the neuroscience behind child development, and the impact of nurturing that development has increased substantially.
There is a growing awareness of the 30 million word gap that Head Start works to close, the long-lasting health benefits of early intervention, and the greater rates of high school graduation for Head Start alums. These are just some of the important outcomes that are so important for the children, families, and communities Head Start serves.
As that understanding has increased, so too have our expectations for early childhood environments and the staff who work with our youngest learners. Children are our future, but the reality is that today in the United States, our future rests in the hands of underpaid, oftentimes undervalued, and overstressed early educators.
Parents entrust their children with early educators at the most critical time in their development and yet society leaves early educators with unmanageable workloads and unlivable wages. We, in the Head Start community, know that this isn’t a new problem, and that it is only getting worse.
More than ever, the workforce is at the core of Head Start — they are the engine that propels positive outcomes for children and families. Without home visitors, teachers, family service workers, education coordinators, and all those who create the vibrant, successful programs within communities across the country, Head Start would not exist. Without a strong, smoothly-operating engine, the whole program stalls.
The quality of Head Start’s workforce is directly tied to the outcomes of children and families. Yet, as our country grows, new technology evolves, and simply “living” becomes ever more expensive, wages in the early childhood education field have largely stayed the same. We all know very well just how important our workforce is, and we all know that the state of our workforce has direct, serious implications for Head Start children. So our task is this — to take control of the future of Head Start by supporting and retaining a quality, qualified workforce.
What can you do about it?
Step 1: Acknowledge the depth of the problem.
Beginning with a recognition of the importance of the issue at hand. At the program level, the lack of resources, both monetary and human, all-too-often combine to create a high-stress, over-demanding workplace. Staff can be overworked and underpaid when simply working to meet the day-to-day demands of Head Start. This can lead to high staff turnover which, in turn, can exacerbate a program’s inability to maintain staff. And that’s when a vicious cycle begins. Increased turnover demands proportionally more resources — more funds, human resources, and time spent on orientation, background checks, and training for new staff. The result: a major drain on resources for the program and a drag on morale for existing staff.
But the impact doesn’t end with the program and its staff. These effects combined can impact the continuity of care for Head Start children and can compromise their social and academic outcomes, a result no child deserves. Disrupting this vicious cycle requires focused, persistent action, and that’s the second step we, as a Head Start community, can take toward making a change.
Step 2: Make your voice heard.
When it comes to increasing the pay of Head Start teachers, it starts with Congress, and your work to change how we support the Head Start workforce can start today with a personal commitment to use your voice to shape lawmakers’ perceptions of what Head Start achieves and why the Head Start workforce is so valuable.
Join the Families Unite Campaign to take action to make sure Congress understands, values, and invests in the Head Start workforce.
Step 3: Encourage others to stand with you.
Don’t stop after you’ve registered for the Families Unite Campaign. Head Start, as the original multi-generational program, has made parents an integral part of its success since its inception. Parents of children in Head Start have always played a vital role in programs, from volunteering in classrooms to serving on policy councils to joining the staff — but their role doesn’t need to stop there.
Support Head Start parents on their pathways to becoming strong early childhood advocates by encouraging them to join the Families Unite Campaign today. After all, who best understands the true value of a strong Head Start and an empowered Head Start workforce than a parent? Together, we will combine our voices to build a strong Head Start for children, families, and communities for generations to come.
Cody Kornack is the National Head Start Association’s Senior Manager of Congressional Affairs. She works on policy issues and government relations work that pertain to children and families living in poverty. In recent years, she has focused on policy solutions to address the impacts that trauma and substance use disorder can have on young children.