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In Head Start, Some Adults Aren’t Alright

In Head Start, Some Adults Aren’t Alright

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Head Start programs have a proven track record when it comes to boosting the health and outlook of low-income young children. But is it coming at an unacknowledged cost? Results from a first-of-its-kind new survey out this week from researchers at Temple University suggest that the health and well-being of the adults tasked with carrying out the program is significantly worse than that of otherwise similar peers.

The survey, which drew upon more than 2,000 Head Start female staffers (most of the program’s employees are women) in Pennsylvania, found that employees were more likely to suffer from mental and physical health ailments than other women of similar demographic backgrounds.

Those surveyed were asked to anonymously report on a number of stress-related health problems, including obesity, asthma, hypertension, diabetes, severe headaches and migraines, and lower back pain.

While a little less than a quarter of Head Start respondents said they had none of these health conditions, nearly 22 percent said they had three or more. Compare that to national statistics of demographically similar women, in which 35 percent report having none of the ailments and nearly 13 percent report three or more of the conditions.

Among the Head Start employees, about 32 percent reported severe headaches or migraines, 37 percent lower back pain, and 37 percent obesity.

More than 28 percent of staff reported their physical or mental health was “not good” on 14 or more days over the past month. That’s compared to less than 15 percent in the national comparison group.

Head Start staffers also appear to suffer from a higher incidence of mental health problems. “In our study, 24.4 percent of Head Start staff had clinically significant depressive symptoms,” the report states, about 6 percent higher than national statistics.

Nearly 15 percent of Head Start respondents described their overall health status as “fair or poor.”

But access to health care isn’t among the problems recorded by the survey. “Nearly all Head Start staff reported having health insurance and a personal doctor, a greater percentage than in the national sample,” the report notes.

The survey, led by Dr. Robert C. Whitaker, was voluntary and included employees from 66 of Pennsylvania’s 91 Head Start and Early Head Start programs. Within the participating programs, more than 65 percent of staffers completed the web-based questions.

Nationally, the federally funded Head Start and Early Head Start programs employ more than 200,000 staffers and work with nearly 1 million low-income children and families.

The most obvious concern raised by the findings is that many Head Start staffers appear to be of poor health, struggling with multiple chronic mental and physical health conditions. But the survey also raises questions of efficacy: If a substantial portion of Head Start employees aren’t at their best, that could dampen the efficacy of the Head Start program as a whole. As the report’s authors write:

Symptoms of depression in early childhood staff are associated with lower sensitivity and increased withdrawal in adult–child interactions. Staff’s symptoms of depression may also interfere with the development of healthy self-regulation in children, which could affect school readiness.

But why are some Head Start employees, or at least those surveyed in participating Pennsylvania programs, not doing very well? The report points to stressful, poorly paid work that doesn’t get much respect: “Head Start staff have relatively low wages and social standing and often work under stressful circumstances.”

But the researchers also suggest that working with behaviorally challenged poor kids takes a toll on the staff, which can then in turn impact their effectiveness.

Many children in Head Start have multiple social risks, which can contribute to poor self-regulation and disruptive behaviors that interfere with learning and place emotional demands on staff.

So what might be done to improve the well-being of Head Start employees?

One idea offered is the use of “mindfulness-based stress-reduction techniques.” (As the New York Times noted last Sunday, “mindfulness” is one of those buzzwords that is fast approaching cultural saturation at the moment.) Such techniques typically involve using meditation practices to focus attention, improve relaxation, and lessen physical and mental suffering.

“Such approaches have already been applied in other professions, such as health care, public safety, and social work, in which high demands are placed on staff who must be physically and mentally well to serve others,” the Temple report says.

Worksite wellness models are another potential option, the report notes.

The report doesn’t venture into the more political terrain of urging salary hikes, but it does take note of Head Start’s average salary, which hardly seems conducive to overall well-being:

“[A]ll salaries in Head Start are relatively low, with the average Head Start teacher in Pennsylvania earning approximately $26,000 a year.”

Related Stories:

When It Comes to Making Preschool Work, Quality is Key

Obesity rates drop for poor preschoolers, but race disparities persist

Grandparents Face Financial Woes in Raising Grandkids


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