Stressful Head Start Programs Are Causing Real Damage To Teachers

Head start cook makes breakfast for students REUTERS/Gary CameronCook Sarah Thomas prepares breakfast for children at the Frederick, Maryland Head Start facility.

Head Start, the nation’s largest federally funded early education program,
is leaving its teachers with inordinate amounts of stress and increased medical problems, according to a Temple University study released last week.

Head Start is an education program that reaches nearly 1 million low-income children. The goal is to prepare young children for kindergarten. Many children in the program are at risk for disruptive behaviours, however, and that makes teaching difficult and puts emotional demands on the staff.

The study, which surveyed the staff of 66 Head Start programs in Pennsylvania, is the first to look into the effects of Head Start on the staff, as opposed to the children. The findings are striking:

  • Six physical health conditions — obesity, asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes or prediabetes, severe headache or migraine, and lower back pain — were each between 19-35% more common in Head Start staff than in the comparable U.S. population.
  • 24 per cent of the staff suffered from significant depressive symptoms — enough to be diagnosed with depression.
  • 28 per cent reported that their physical or mental health was “not good” on half or more of the 30 days prior to the survey.
  • 15 per cent rated their overall health as either “fair or poor.”
  • 9 per cent were absent from work 10 or more days in the last year due to illness.

Head Start has long been a controversial education program. Earlier this year, Head Start was back in the news after the Department of Health and Human Services released a study that indicated Head Start’s effect on children fades after second grade. Many have used the study as means to argue for the program’s abolition.

One teacher who participated in the survey wrote a blunt response for why teachers in the program are so affected.

“My job is why I’m stressed all the time and my personal health suffers. I chose a demanding job, but the pay is bare minimum and isn’t enough to get by,” said the teacher.

Head Start teachers make between $US22,000 and $US30,000, depending on their level of education.

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