A vicious circle: how the child care staffing crisis leads to real consequences for children

CEED Director Ann Bailey reflects on a young child’s expulsion from preschool and what his story reveals about the difficult choices that child care professionals and parents are forced to make.

By Ann Bailey, PhD

Ann Bailey

One of the most rewarding parts of my job as a program evaluator is interviewing early childhood professionals about their perceptions of the programs in which they work. I love talking with people who are in the field every day, and their observations often make me think differently about the work that we do at CEED.

Recently an educator told me a story about her work that stayed with me. She told me about a young child who was displaying challenging behaviors in his center-based preschool program. This child–let’s call him Ryan–was expelled from the program. Expulsions from preschool and child care, unfortunately, are not news to anyone in the early childhood sector. Walter Gilliam and others have been publishing research on suspension and expulsion in early childhood settings since 2006. As an early childhood researcher, I know that expelling a child because of challenging behavior is often a result of adult intolerance, adults not having the necessary skills to support the child’s needs, and/or implicit and explicit bias.

The educator explained, however, that in this case the reason for Ryan’s expulsion was staff retention. The program director told her that it was more important to retain staff than to work with Ryan to develop more appropriate behavior. The director explained that it is just too difficult to find qualified personnel these days. If a staff member became so frustrated with Ryan’s behavior that they decided to quit, the director would have trouble finding a replacement. Once a replacement was found, they would need to spend countless hours–and dollars–getting that new teacher the training necessary to do the job well.

I’ll be honest: my initial reaction to the story was judgmental. Ryan needed help learning new skills and behaviors through caring relationships with adults. I was incensed that he had been expelled. After a moment, however, my reflective training kicked in, and I realized that the story I had just heard was much more complex than it had originally seemed.


As CEED staff members, we do our best to put the tenets of reflective supervision into practice. In the words of the Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health, reflective supervision can “help professionals develop the capacity to shift perspective, address personal biases, set boundaries, and slow down, observe, and listen.” I thought about the other people who were involved in Ryan’s story. What might they be thinking and feeling? How might their needs and wants have influenced the director’s decision?

The educator

First, I thought about Ryan’s teacher. Early childhood professionals expect a certain level of challenging behavior from all children in their care, as it’s often the way young children communicate their needs. We know that some toddlers bite. Maybe it’s for attention; maybe it’s because they’re teething; maybe it’s because they’re frustrated; maybe it’s because they’re dealing with trauma. We can expect some preschoolers to hit, yell, cry, and “act out” for similar reasons.

Early childhood professionals must try to determine the root cause of behaviors like these; it’s their job. They must also help children learn appropriate, alternative communication methods. But as anyone knows who has worked with or parented young children, behavior changes don’t happen overnight. Success requires a lot of time, energy, and practice. And it usually requires all the adults in a child’s life to be coordinated and consistent in their responses to the child.

I pictured myself as the lead teacher in Ryan’s classroom. I’m in charge of 20 preschoolers in a room with one other adult. Let’s say that at least three children regularly display various challenging behaviors. I’m responsible for maintaining all licensing requirements, including the health and safety of all the other children. My job also includes helping all the children meet appropriate learning outcomes. That means I must implement an evidence-based curriculum and collect assessment data to demonstrate developmental changes.

I thought about everything that needs to be accomplished in a classroom like that. If I were Ryan’s teacher, how would I balance maintaining a safe environment where children could learn with addressing a few children’s behaviors? How would I prioritize these different, important tasks? Who would I prioritize?

The parents of Ryan’s classmates

Next, I thought about the parents of other children in Ryan’s classroom. How would I respond if my young child was the target of another child’s challenging behavior? How many times would I be expected to forgive and forget about my child being harmed by a peer before I started looking for a different provider? Even in the absence of physical harm, I would wonder how regularly occurring interruptions impacted my child’s learning and classroom relationships. Perhaps Ryan’s behaviors had been disruptive enough that classmates’ parents had become concerned.

Further complicating matters, many child care programs were forced to close during the pandemic because parents lost jobs or kept children home. This worsened an already critical shortage of providers. Now, as people return to work and demand increases, it may be next to impossible to find another provider if a parent is unhappy with their child’s experience. If I was the parent of one of Ryan’s classmates, I’d be daunted by the process of finding alternative care. Yet I might feel my family was being driven away by Ryan’s behavior.

The program director

Child care directors answer to many different people. On the most basic level, they must ensure that children are safe and that their program meets licensing requirements. If the program is part of a larger organization, they have obligations towards the parent company. They are, of course, responsible for the care and education of the children in their program and are answerable to their families. And they are also responsible for their employees.

I put myself in the director’s shoes. If I was in charge of a child care center, I would be highly attuned to the risk of my staff experiencing burnout. The World Health Organization states that burnout results from “chronic workplace stress” and has three main symptoms: “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”

Clearly, child care professionals have difficult jobs. They work long hours and are poorly paid; our society also does not give their work the respect it deserves. It should come as no surprise when people who feel unsupported in their work of managing children, including children with challenging behaviors, leave their job for something with less stress and better pay.

Research shows teacher retention is associated with better outcomes for children. As director, I would do my best to keep my staff for the benefit of the children in their care. Furthermore, it isn’t easy to find a replacement when a child care worker quits. Pre-pandemic, turnover rates in child care programs were already between 26-40%. In November 2020, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) reported that of 6,000 survey respondents, 69% stated that recruitment and retention had become even more difficult.

My first instinct had been to blame the director for failing to support Ryan and try multiple solutions to a complex problem. But as I reflected on the sometimes competing pressures on directors, I realized that Ryan’s case presented a genuine dilemma. Ryan desperately needed support and consistency, but the other children in his class also needed their teacher and deserved a calm environment in which to learn and grow. Neither they nor Ryan would be well served if their teacher left. Did Ryan’s needs outweigh those of the other children? Should the director have prioritized supporting Ryan over supporting a staff member?

Ryan’s parents

When a child is expelled from an early childhood program, it is disruptive not just for the child but for their parents. We’ve already seen how difficult it is to find a spot given the severe shortage of providers. I wondered: when Ryan was expelled, how did his parents cope? Were they able to find another high-quality provider, or did they have to settle for a program they didn’t like as much? How long did they have to wait until a spot opened up? Unless they had support from family members, their work schedule might have been disrupted. They might have lost income or even left the workforce altogether.

Then I wondered if the pattern would repeat itself. A child who is expelled from one educational setting often continues their challenging behaviors in the next, risking another expulsion. Would this happen to Ryan? If I were his parent, how would that make me feel? I might be angry or even embarrassed. I might feel powerless to help my child. Or I might come to believe that Ryan was being treated unfairly by the adults who were supposed to help him grow and learn. If that was the case, where would I turn for help?


I spent a lot of time thinking about Ryan. We know that for children, healthy learning and growing occurs in the context of quality relationships with important adults in their lives. Ryan, for example, will likely only succeed in changing his challenging behaviors when he receives specific, consistent, age-appropriate support from those important adults.

What if Ryan ends up going from provider to provider without the opportunity to develop a meaningful relationship with an educator? Will other adults in his life, such as family members, have the knowledge, skills, and capacity to provide the kind of support he needs? How will disruptions in his early years affect his academic trajectory going forward? Will he learn to dislike school because of his experiences in child care? Will he develop quality friendships with peers? There are just so many unanswered questions.

No easy answers

Although perspective-taking helped me move beyond my knee-jerk reaction to Ryan’s story, I didn’t come up with a solution for this difficult situation. On the contrary, I ended up with more questions and concerns than when I started.

I’m concerned about the crisis in recruiting and retaining early childhood workers. Staff are experiencing intense burnout because the expectations of them are just too high. They can earn more and experience less stress working at the local big box store. Leaving the child care sector is a rational decision under such circumstances.

I worry that there will be generations of children who experience expulsion more regularly than consistent care. I worry that the children who need high-quality care the most will be expelled rather than have access to relationships and settings where they can grow and learn. Will their progress towards developmental milestones be affected? What behaviors should providers expect to see from these children? Will their attachment to adults beyond their parents or guardians suffer in the long term?

I’m concerned about parents, too. They need high-quality care for their children while they work. When problems arise, I worry that parents will be unable to work with providers to solve them. Will they have other child care options? Will they have the knowledge and skills–and the bandwidth–to advocate for their children? Will setbacks like expulsions impact parents’ relationships with their children?

I’m concerned that Americans don’t understand that quality child care is essential to creating a qualified workforce, a thriving economy, and a functioning society. What does it say about our priorities as a nation when retaining staff and keeping a program’s doors open must take precedence over a child’s need to learn social-emotional skills?

I wish I had easy answers to these questions. My heart aches for children like Ryan who need support. But I can take the perspective of the teacher who is charged with caring for a whole classroom of young children. I can also consider the viewpoint of the director whose livelihood, as well as that of her employees’, depends on the program remaining open. And when I think about the work that we do at CEED–asking the questions and doing the research to untangle these complex problems–I feel hope that they are solvable.

An update from the director

Ann Bailey, PhD, director of CEED, shares an update on our work.

Dear CEED Community,

Ann Bailey

Summer is in full swing, and many people are taking advantage of the season for vacationing, getting out on the water, or just lying in a hammock with a cool beverage. Here at CEED, however, we often find ourselves just as busy during the summer months as the people we serve: the early childhood professional workforce. I wanted to share an update on our recent activities as well as a look at a major new project.

In June, we hosted over 200 early childhood professionals at our first-ever online Minnesota Early Intervention Summer Institute. The Summer Institute is an annual professional development event that provides high-quality, evidence-based content to early childhood educators, early childhood special educators, and related services personnel across Minnesota. CEED’s Deborah Ottman and Karen Anderson develop, organize, and implement the event. This year, CEED personnel—Kristina Erstad-Sankey; Anne Larson, PhD; Margie Milenova, PhD; and myself—presented two out of the five tracks offered. We were delighted to be able to host our early childhood colleagues after the 2020 Summer Institute had to be cancelled due to COVID-19. We very much hope you will join us next year. 2022 will be the 40th anniversary of the very first Summer Institute!

Additionally, CEED is very pleased to announce that we received a grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services to implement a statewide system that supports child care trainers and relationship-based professional development (RBPD) specialists. This project, known as TARSS, will significantly add to our work and our mission of “Integrating the science of early development to enhance the work of professionals through evidence-based research, program quality, reflective practice, and professional development.” Read more about TARSS here. Coaches, trainers, and RBPD specialists can get in touch with us directly for assistance with their professional development needs.

As we anticipate getting back to our St. Paul campus offices in early August, we are also thinking about our colleagues throughout the University of Minnesota system and in the early childhood sector during these times of transition. We look forward to continuing to help practitioners and programs achieve the best outcomes for children and to seeing you in person once again. If you would like to learn more about CEED and our work, please feel free to reach out to me, or take a look at the opportunities that are available on our website.

With my best wishes for a healthy summer,

Ann Bailey, PhD
Director, CEED

Gratitude, sympathy, sharing: helping children practice prosocial skills at home

Ann Bailey, PhD, explores how parents and caregivers can help children learn prosocial skills at home using a four-step approach.

By Ann Bailey, PhD, Director, CEED

Ann Bailey

Years ago, my mom bought a sign at an art fair that is made out of game tiles and yardsticks. The sign says, “There is always, always, always something to be thankful for.” I have been thinking about that sign often these days, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a mostly negative impact on many families’ holiday plans. Many of us will be missing out on things we look forward to at this time of year, especially visits with family and friends. Annual traditions–special meals and treats, gift giving, decorating our homes–may look very different, or they may not happen at all. For me, during what seems likely to be a less-than-ideal holiday season, it feels even more important to focus on behaviors such as gratitude, sympathy, and empathy.

The author's mom's sign uses board game tiles to spell out the message "There is always, always, always something to be thankful for"
This art fair find has stood the test of time

It might be surprising to use the word “behaviors” to describe gratitude, sympathy, and empathy. We tend to think about these as traits that a person is born with, or perhaps as states of mind that happen spontaneously. In early childhood education literature, however, gratitude, empathy, sympathy, and other behaviors are defined as “prosocial skills.”

In their book The Roots of Prosocial Behavior in Children, Nancy Eisenberg and Paul Mussen define prosocial skills as “voluntary actions that are intended to help or benefit another individual or group of individuals.” Prosocial skills include taking turns, sharing, and group entry (a child’s ability to ask to join a group of peers). These are all skills that we easily recognize as learned behaviors. Prosocial skills also include empathy, sympathy, and kindness. In the early childhood field, we consider these to be something that we need to learn, rather than something we are born knowing how to do.

Prosocial skills are also known as “friendship skills,” because they help us get along with one another. Research demonstrates that young children who show greater prosocial skills are more likely to have positive social interactions as well as a more positive view of themselves. They are also less likely to engage in aggressive behaviors. Researchers have also found that these behaviors tend to be fairly stable over time. In other words, once a child has learned and practiced prosocial skills, they should be able to use them successfully over a lifetime.

In a 2018 article in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Tara Fahmie and Kevin Luczynski suggest that prosocial skills thrive in environments where both adults and children promote and reinforce them. But how can parents and caregivers create those environments and foster those prosocial skills when preschool and playdates may not be an option, when school is virtual, and when opportunities to visit with family and friends are few to nonexistent?

It’s true that interacting with their peers is an excellent way for children to practice friendship skills. It’s also true that the pandemic has affected the amount of time many children spend with people their own age. But there are ways for parents and caregivers to step in and help children learn prosocial behaviors. In her book Skillstreaming in Early Childhood: A Guide for Teaching Prosocial Skills, Ellen McGinnis describes a four-part approach: modeling, role-playing, performance feedback, and generalization.

Model appropriate behaviors

When you’re playing with a child, demonstrate the behaviors you want the child to use, such as group entry, sharing, and problem solving. Work on group entry by simply asking your child if you can play with them before jumping in. Work on sharing by telling the child, “I’d like to play with the toy you have. Will you share it with me?” Be sure to respect their answer. If they say no, you could suggest that you take a turn with the toy for five minutes and then give it back. Or you could demonstrate problem solving by finding another toy and proposing a trade.

For children who are working on developing an emotional vocabulary, try labeling emotions: “It’s exciting to do something fun together!” or “I feel badly that he is crying. I wonder how I could help him.”

Role-play appropriate behaviors

Let’s say you want to work on developing sympathy. You might try playing the role of the child while your child plays the role of the caregiver or teacher. You can pretend to be upset and ask your child how they, as the caregiver or teacher, would respond to you. If they don’t have the emotional vocabulary yet, give them the appropriate words by suggesting that they say, “I can see you’re upset. Can I help you?” or “I get upset sometimes, too. What can we do about it?” You might also try involving dolls or stuffed animals in role playing. For example, you might pretend that a toy is showing kindness to another toy and then point out that kind act to your child.

Give performance feedback

Have you heard that old parenting saying, “Catch them being good”? The third step in McGinnis’ teaching approach reminds me of that saying. Children need feedback to learn appropriate behaviors. Try to notice throughout the day when children show kindness and empathy or try problem solving. Then point it out: “Thank you for helping your sister put the toys away!” “I saw that you were frustrated opening your snack, and I liked how you asked for help.” You can catch grown-ups being good, too! You might, for example, point out that a driver stopped to let you cross the street and label that as an act of kindness.

What if you observe some not-so-good behavior? Let’s say your children are arguing. Rather than swooping in to solve the problem and stop the arguing, you could try asking the children how they might solve the problem. Children often offer up creative responses to problem solving!


Help young children make the connection that if a prosocial skill works at home, then it should also work at school or child care. Children who haven’t had the opportunity to practice these behaviors outside their homes for many months may need extra support in this area. Providing specific instructions and labeling the skills (“taking turns,” “showing empathy,” “problem solving,” and so on) will help children understand that these skills are generalizable. In other words, they can be used anywhere that young children typically spend their time: at child care, school, a place of worship, the library, the playground, and so on. Even if they don’t have an immediate opportunity to try out their skills in the wider world, you can help them imagine doing so.

Using our imaginations is actually a great way to flex our prosocial muscles. There rarely seems to be a lack of problem-solving opportunities where young children are involved, but inventing a pseudo-problem is another way to teach them about things like sharing and kindness. A classic example is asking children to imagine one apple and several people around a table. How would the children make sure everyone gets some of the apple? They might talk about cutting the apple up into enough portions so that everyone gets some, having each person take a bite until it’s gone, or trying to find more apples.

From an adult vantage point, the prosocial approach in a given scenario might seem obvious, almost instinctive. For children, however, navigating social interactions takes repeated rehearsals. Eventually, prosocial behaviors can become habits.

The same can be said of gratitude, and that’s the prosocial habit that I am working to adopt as 2020 comes to an end. In these waning days of a difficult year, I’m making a concerted effort to focus on the people, places, and things for which I am grateful. Of course, on some days, this is easier than on others. That is a reality that we can express to children as well. A colleague shared with me a wonderful way that she found to encourage her children to show gratitude. Before Thanksgiving, she made a paper turkey, and at the end of each day, she asked her young children to share what they were grateful for that day. Then she wrote their answers on a feather and added it to the turkey. Now that Thanksgiving has passed, an alternative might be to write children’s answers on strips of paper and make a paper chain.

I take solace in the words of author Amy Collette, who said, “Gratitude is a powerful catalyst for happiness. It’s the spark that lights a fire of joy in your soul.” I hope this holiday season provides you with opportunities to light that fire of joy and share it with those around you.