Supporting early educators’ wellbeing in ‘Childcare Deserts’

  • Young child playing indoors

As the crisis in the early childhood sector deepens, and families are unable to access early learning in ‘Childcare Deserts’, a grass roots pilot program is trying to improve educator wellbeing and stem the flow of educators out of the sector. These areas represent almost all of regional, rural and remote Australia, and low SES metropolitan areas.

Why is there an educator shortage?

Since before the pandemic, many early childhood educators have been leaving the sector due to poor conditions, low wages (13th lowest in the country), low status, and overwork. During the pandemic, educators were forced to work during lockdowns, meaning their physical and mental health has worsened as they report feelings of burnout and neglect.

Once the aged care sector was given a 15% wage rise, a large number of educators moved into a better paying job. This means they are better able to pay their bills during a cost of living crisis. Additionally, many have been able to move into other sectors due to the low unemployment levels. These high levels of attrition have meant the number of vacancies in the industry have more than doubled since the pandemic.

What are the impacts of educator shortages?

Apart from the social cost of losing qualified educators, there is also a loss to regional, rural and remote communities. Educators in these communities provide much needed support to parents, offering child development information, referrals for screening, providing a link to health, mental health and family support services. They often provide extra assistance to parents on long waiting lists to access these services. However, this also impacts educators’ workload and health.

When there are not enough educators, other losses occur. Children are missing out on early learning opportunities that have been proven to support a better transition to school. When they do have access to early learning, their educators are often stressed due to staff shortages and a lack of professional development opportunities.

Parents are unable to work the hours they want to, impacting family finances and parent’s wellbeing. For women, who are often the primary caregivers, this can also mean they are unable to leave unsafe relationships if they do not have access to their own income. Also, businesses and the whole community suffer when they cannot find workers to staff much needed services and businesses.

A pilot program

Researchers from Southern Cross University, the University of New England and the Manna Institute have started piloting an effective grass roots Peer Support Program that was co-created with educators and researchers in Canada. Funding has been received from the Australian Childcare Alliance (Queensland Branch) who are a peak industry body.

The program is being trialled in Queensland ‘Childcare Deserts’ in 2024-25. Once the program is adapted from Australian educator feedback, the researchers will seek funding to implement the program in other states and territories.

The program supports the educators by nurturing them in a Community of Practice group of 13 educators from the region, including one facilitator. The group meet once a month to share a funded healthy meal (face-to-face or virtual) and discuss professional and personal issues important to them. They can also spend their group’s allowance on personal or professional development needs.

During the other weeks of the month, the educators meet in pairs or triads (face-to-face, virtual, phone, email, messages) for about an hour to support each other. These smaller groups are made up of at least one experienced and one newer educator.

Such initiatives are cost effective and important, because when we support educators, we are also supporting children, parents, businesses and communities.

If you would like to know more about the pilot or future programs, please email [email protected] .

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