Teacher Turnover in Child Care Hurts Everyone

Each workday in North Carolina, more than 100,000 children spend their time in child care while their parents work. Finding the right setting for your child is an important decision – one that takes time and can be discouraging.

We are fortunate in North Carolina to have the “Star” rating system that gives parents a benchmark in helping to make the best decision. The 5-Star Rating System evaluates child care programs based on their licensing compliance history, program standards and teacher education. Higher stars indicate higher quality care. But the stars don’t answer all the questions; each rating represents a large segment of the child-care quality spectrum. There is a great deal of variety within each star level, and there often is overlap across the ratings. For example, Smart Start, the state’s nationally recognized early care and education initiative, considers 3-, 4- and 5-star ratings to indicate high quality care.

So, once a family has selected a few possible child care options, they have asked if the child care program is licensed, they have asked about the star rating and health department ratings, and checked out any complaints against the program, what’s next?

One crucial element to consider is teacher turnover. And here’s why. The most important element in a high quality child-care experience is the classroom teacher. All the toys in the world can’t give a child what a great teacher can.

During the earliest years of life, children are developing attachments to the significant adults in their lives. Strong emotional attachments allow children to develop a sense of trust and to build healthy relationships with other people. When these attachments are not strong and secure, children may suffer the emotional consequences for the rest of their lives.

In an article titled “High Turnover of Child-care Teachers Hurts Everybody,” written for Pennsylvania State University’s Office of Public Information, Dr. Elizabeth Manlove, assistant professor of human development and family studies in Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development writes: “High turnover in child care deprives children of one of the most crucial elements necessary for healthy development, ongoing relationships with a limited number of sensitive and caring adults who know the child well.”

Before a child can learn, he must feel safe and free to make his needs known. When he develops a strong emotional bond with his teacher, he will have the best opportunity to explore and learn in his environment.

Building a trusting relationship with a young child takes time and a great deal of positive interaction between adult and child. When a child’s teacher leaves, the attachment process is interrupted and the child usually feels a sense of loss and may regress in his emotional development. Any kind of interruption of a child’s primary caregiver needs to be handled thoughtfully, making sure the child has time to understand that her teacher is leaving, ideally has a transition period with the new teacher before the teacher leaves and has a chance to say goodbye.

When a teacher leaves suddenly without time for adequate planning, centers may have to hire substitute teachers for some period of time before a permanent teacher is hired. This creates another time of interruption, readjustment and challenge for young children. These changes require children to develop relationships with one or more different substitute teachers with different personalities and often with varying abilities to manage a classroom of young children.

Children often respond to teacher turnover with refusals to go to school, crying when parents leave them and renewed fears and insecurities.

In addition to the important implications for children, teacher turnover is problematic to other teachers in a child care program. Although we may not think about child-care settings as businesses, they are. When staff members leave, it affects the efficiency of the organization. When a teacher leaves, the teachers who are left behind often must assume extra responsibilities and may have to shift their duties to fill in for the missing teacher. This becomes an added burden for the teachers and may in turn affect their own classrooms and children.

Teacher turnover is an ongoing burden for child-care centers, as well. If 30 percent of a center’s teachers leave every year, a great deal of time and money must be invested by the center in recruiting and retraining qualified teachers. And finding and hiring new teachers with appropriate education and credentials to maintain the program’s licensure and standards is a continuing challenge. Furthermore, many families remove their children from a center with high teacher turnover, resulting in significant loss in revenue to the center.

The child-care industry in North Carolina is a major industry, employing more than 46,000 people and generating over $1.5 billion in revenues. But the profit margin is low, and teachers and staff are not highly paid. The average salary for a child-care teacher in North Carolina is currently $15,000 per year; many have few or no benefits such as paid time off and health-care benefits.

The issues that result in high teacher turnover are complex. Two of the most obvious are low wages and inadequate benefits.

To assure that teachers have good qualifications and that child-care teachers remain in their child-care programs, teachers must receive salaries commensurate with their education and experience. And families cannot pay the full cost through their parent fees alone. Since research demonstrates the direct link between good outcomes for young children in child care and the long term benefits to society, additional public and private resources must be tapped to solve this problem.

Many variables go into making the child-care experience the best it can be for your child. Minimizing the effects of teacher turnover is an important part of that formula. When parents and teachers work together, the transition can be smooth, and a new and exciting relationship can begin.

Teacher Turnover Q & A

Should I ask my center about turnover?

Yes! When selecting a child-care facility, you are the “consumer” and should feel completely comfortable asking any questions like, “How many of your teachers have been here for longer than two years?” and “How long have you been with this center?”

What if a caregiver leaves suddenly?

Always address your concerns with the center staff or director. If you come in one morning, and your child’s teacher isn’t there, ask why. Maybe she’s sick or on vacation. If you discover that she has resigned, ask about the center’s plans: “Are you going to hire new staff or move existing staff?” and “How long do you anticipate this transition period to be?”

Talk to your child about the change in honest, simple terms. “Billy, Ms. Jones is going to be with her Mommy this week because her Mommy is sick. While she is gone, Ms. Watson will be here to play with you. Aren’t you lucky that you get to make a new friend this week?” Or, “Sally, you have a new teacher. This is Ms. Harris, and I am so excited that you get to meet someone new who will teach you new and fun things”

It’s also a good idea to give the new teacher specific details about your child to help them develop a rapport. “Mr. Wilson, Tony loves dinosaurs and got to see a big one at the museum last week. Ask him to tell you more about it.”

Remember that your child takes their cues from you. If you are upset about the change, share those feelings with adults when your child is not listening. Encourage your child to be as open as possible to this new person.

Can I help my child and new teacher adjust to each other?

Communication is key. Introduce yourself to the new teacher. Plan to spend a little extra time in the morning or in the afternoon in the classroom to get to know the teacher.

Be sensitive to the fact that the teacher has to pay attention to all the children and their parents. Ask what you can do to help make things easier during the transition.

Remember that no two children are alike and no two teachers are alike. A new teacher will do some things differently from the previous one. These differences aren’t necessarily bad. Use a new teacher’s unique gifts as an opportunity to show your child that every teacher brings a special talent or strength to the classroom.


Karen Ponder is the president of the North Carolina Partnership for Children (NCPC). Greer Bowen Beaty is a member of the NCPC staff and the mother of two children in child care.

Call 919-821-7999 or visit Smart Start and the N.C. Partnership for Children (www.ncsmartstart.org) for more information, or call the state Division of Child Development at 800-859-0829 (http://ncchildcare.dhhs.state.nc.us/general/home.asp).

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