Early Childhood Educators Support Children’s Healthy Development: Who is Meeting their Health Care Needs?

Early childhood educators care for our youngest children during the time of their most rapid brain growth. They help foster essential brain development that builds a foundation for children to learn and grow for the rest of their lives.

But the teachers themselves often go without. Faced with low wages and limited workplace supports, many early childhood educators struggle with mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. While early childhood educators were less likely than the general population of adult females to experience serious psychological distress, teachers with a high school education or less, Asian teachers and teachers with lower household incomes (below $22,500 per year) had significantly more distress than other early childhood educators.  

These findings are from a study using data from the National Survey of Early Care and Education (NSECE), a nationally representative survey of the ECE workforce collected in 2012 analyzed by researchers from Child Trends.  

Medicaid expansion can help. The authors note that while teachers with and without health coverage noted similar levels of distress, coverage still matters. Instead, it may be that the type of coverage that early childhood educators have, such as high-deductible health plans, makes teachers less likely to seek out regular mental health care.

The report looks at national averages, but access to health coverage is still uneven across the country. In the 17 non-Medicaid expansion states, it’s likely that early childhood educators are seeking even less mental health care.

From what we know about the early childhood workforce from other studies, teachers in non-expansion states are likely in the coverage gap. They earn too much to qualify for Medicaid coverage, but not enough to receive subsidies to purchase Marketplace coverage. They generally work for small employers (under 50 employees) who are not required to offer insurance to their employees.

Caregivers’ lack of mental health care effects children too. Depressed teachers are less patient and more withdrawn, and studies have shown the children in their charge lag behind in emotional and cognitive development. This matches the experience of children whose mothers experience maternal depression, the researchers noted.

Small workplace supports made a difference for teachers. Educators “had less psychological distress when they experienced teamwork, respect, and stability at work,” the authors wrote. Increased pay also helped, as teachers with lower incomes ($22,500 per year and below), reported higher levels of stress than those with higher incomes.

Again, Medicaid expansion could be another way to help teachers and their young students.

Research continues to confirm that Medicaid provides financial stability, relieving teachers of the choice between getting mental health care or putting food on the table.   

Early childhood educators play a vital role in setting young children up for success. When teachers get the health care and stability they need, they can fully support children’s healthy development and create a more promising future for us all.

Maggie Clark is a Program Director at the Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy’s Center for Children and Families.