Research Shows Early Childhood Education Teachers Face Hurdles to Well-Being

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TULSA -- Studies consistently show that birth to age 5 is a critical development window when children achieve cognitive and physical milestones that are important for their future health. However, much less research has been conducted on the well-being of early childhood education teachers -- those who guide children during those developmental years.

To better understand the health and well-being of early childhood education teachers, a multidisciplinary team of University of Oklahoma researchers conducted the Happy Teacher Project, which focused on the physical, psychological and professional well-being of those who care for children in early childhood education programs. Their findings reveal many opportunities for improvement.

“Early childhood teachers love working with children, but they have huge health disparities that we cannot ignore,” said Kyong-Ah Kwon, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education on OU’s Tulsa campus.

Kwon served as principal investigator for the study, which was funded by OU and one of its centers of excellence, the Early Childhood Education Institute, located on the Tulsa campus. The team included researchers from the disciplines of public health, physical therapy, nutritional sciences, interior design, early childhood education, and educational policy.

Researchers conducted a brief health assessment and asked questions of 262 teachers at 38 early childhood facilities in the Tulsa area. The study found that 66% of the teachers were overweight or obese, and 54% were below average in cardio-respiratory fitness. Nearly 75% experienced back, neck or knee pain, and 55% reported having headaches. Thirty-four percent said they were often stressed on the job, and 23% said they were depressed.

The physical well-being of early childhood teachers is especially not well understood. Physical therapist Ken Randall, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences of the OU College of Allied Health on the Tulsa campus, led efforts to evaluate teachers’ physical health. After observing teachers in their classrooms and assessing the ergonomics of their activities, he coined the term “educational athletes.”

“Teachers move rapidly from one activity to another throughout the day, and they’re constantly adjusting their size to a child’s size,” Randall said. “Stooping, which is bending over at the hips with the knees straight, was the most frequent activity I observed, as well as standing while holding children. That puts a lot of strain on the lower back, which is a very likely reason they have musculoskeletal pain.”

Each day, teachers pick up and put down children, who may or may not be cooperative in the process. Even if teachers are practicing good body mechanics, they still face the risk of injury, especially if they don’t have adequate core strength and conditioning, Randall said.

Another study finding was that 33% of teachers had been diagnosed with a urinary tract infection. “They did not always have time to take a break to go to the bathroom, or there was no one available to give them a break,” Kwon said. “Because of that, they tend not to hydrate as well, and dehydration is a factor in urinary tract infections.”

OU experts in public health and interior design also analyzed early childhood facilities to pinpoint other factors affecting teachers’ well-being. Interior design faculty members assessed the physical environment, which often featured teachers sitting in child-sized chairs while interacting with children, which can lead to muscle strain and tension. Public health faculty members looked at air quality, noise and chemical exposure; that data is still being analyzed.

The study also assessed teachers’ nutritional habits, an effort led by the Department of Nutritional Sciences in the OU College of Allied Health. Teachers’ own eating habits, and their support for children’s healthy eating, serve as a model for children’s food choices.

Oklahoma is a leader in early childhood education, including universal access to preschool and being among the first states to implement a quality rating and improvement system. However, turnover remains high among early childhood teachers, and salaries are mostly at poverty level, Kwon said. Researchers plan to use the data from this study to develop interventions that address exercise, nutrition, good body mechanics, and aspects of teachers’ environments.

“Studies show that there is a clear connection between teachers’ well-being and the quality of care they provide to children,” Kwon said. “Our early childhood teachers love working with children, but this study shows that we need to make significant improvement to support teachers’ well-being and work. This is meaningful research because it directly relates to the profession of early childhood education and the role that teachers play during this foundational time in a child’s life.”



One of nation’s few academic health centers with seven professional colleges — Allied Health, Dentistry, Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Public Health and Graduate Studies — the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center serves approximately 4,000 students in more than 70 undergraduate and graduate degree programs on campuses in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. For more information, visit


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