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OU Researchers Aim to Improve Teacher Well-Being

October 11, 2021

OU Researchers Aim to Improve Teacher Well-Being

happy teacher wellness collage

Teachers are stressed. Even before the challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, Oklahoma teachers were protesting low wages, classroom overcrowding and decreased statewide funding for public education.

An interdisciplinary research team at the University of Oklahoma is leading a new approach aimed at improving Head Start teachers’ well-being. Their four-year project is funded by a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and will take a holistic view of physical, psychological and professional well-being, as well as the impact of workplace conditions, for Head Start teachers in Oklahoma. Head Start programs promote school readiness through early childhood education, health, nutrition and well-being services to low-income children and families.

This project is built on a foundation of research established through the Happy Teacher Project, which examines the well-being of early childhood teachers. In collaboration with researchers from multiple disciplines at OU, the Happy Teacher Project began in 2018 through the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education at OU-Tulsa and is led by the principal investigator, Kyong-Ah Kwon. Kwon is also the Drusa B. Cable Endowed Chair in Education and Early Childhood Education, and the Rainbolt Family Endowed Education Presidential Professor in the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education.

“This is a crisis at a societal level,” Kwon said. “Before COVID, through our needs assessment that asked early childhood teachers what they needed to improve their well-being, resources and support for teacher well-being was not listed in the top five things Head Start teachers said they needed; now, it is No. 1. Teachers have a higher awareness that they really need more support and resources for their own well-being during the pandemic.”

Kwon said this project will develop and implement a multifaceted assessment of Head Start teachers’ physical, psychological and professional well-being and how workplace conditions also impact the teachers’ well-being.

“We found that there’s cumulative scientific evidence pointing to the importance of early childhood and the critical role teachers play for children’s development, but this early childhood workforce is often considered a marginalized group that is incredibly low paid and undervalued in very poor working conditions,” Kwon said. 

“One of the unique features of the project is that we include the physical aspect of teachers’ working conditions,” she added. “Another big contribution our project has made is that we focus on the holistic dimensions of well-being, so we not only look at the psychological well-being, like stress, we also look at the physical aspects, like obesity, physical activity, ergonomic pain – and then also their professional well-being and competence.”

The interdisciplinary research team consists of 11 researchers representing nine disciplines at OU and the OU Health Sciences Center. This team will develop a 10-week program, described as the “Happy Teacher Wellness Intervention,” that uses a three-tiered approach in addressing these identified multifaceted aspects of well-being. The first level will include online self-guided short courses that address physical, psychological and professional well-being. The second level will integrate in-person, individualized support.

“We call this ‘Circle of Wellness’ coaches,” Kwon said. “The teacher will meet with a physical wellness coach, a mindfulness coach and educational coaches to set personal goals that the teacher will work toward over that 10-week period.”

In the final level, the researchers will implement center-level support, including additional staffing, so teachers will be able to take breaks and have time during the day to meet with their coaches.

“We are going to create a teacher wellness room to encourage establishing a culture for better well-being at the center,” Kwon said. “At the end of the 10 weeks, we will evaluate the effect of the interventions and then we will also tailor some of that content to expand the intervention to Tribal Nations and rural Head Start teachers.”

The multidisciplinary research team includes OU faculty with expertise in physical “built” environments; the use of technology in personalizing and advancing the well-being methods; advancing the teachers’ professional development; and improving the academic literature on comprehensive educator well-being.

Mia Kile, an associate professor of interior design in the Christopher C. Gibbs College of Architecture, will investigate the impact of the physical environment of the teachers’ well-being.

“We will assess the built environment in which teachers work to better address challenges they may face in regard to their overall health and well-being. This includes a survey of existing conditions, which we will then compare against recommended standards set by industry. When inconsistencies are found, we will provide suggested strategies for teachers or centers to implement.”

“Creating spaces that work for the teachers as well as the students is one of the things we want to try to accomplish with this project,” she added.

Hongwu Wang, an assistant professor in the College of Allied Health, is looking at the role of wearable technology and other technologies in supporting teachers’ physical and cognitive wellness.

“We’re trying to introduce wearable and mHealth technology to try to establish objective and quantitative measures to support the interventions and help teachers more easily adapt to the interventions,” Wang said. “We can see whether their behavior changed, how their behavior changed, and whether the intervention changed their stress level and overall wellness.

“Bigger picture – once we learn from this and have this data, we could expect to be able to provide more individualized, customized interventions based on their behavior changes using artificial intelligence and machine learning to make it more individualized,” he added.

Sherri Castle, interim director of the Early Childhood Education Institute at OU-Tulsa, is supporting the teachers’ professional development component to increase their professional growth and efficacy in the classroom.

“We’re contributing to the professional well-being part of the evaluation, so we will have our assessors go out and observe what happens in a normal day in the classroom and then in this project we’re going to have the opportunity to say, ‘here are things I noticed to help teachers build and grow their professional well-being and to effectively engage with their students,’” Castle said.

Tim Ford, an associate professor in educational leadership and policy studies, is supporting the role of this project in strengthening the academic record of the impact of teacher well-being on student outcomes.

“One of the biggest challenges with a project like this is that our teachers are overwhelmed,” Ford said. “We know that they are stressed and may be at their breaking point, and so adding something, even something intended to be helpful, could end up being another source of stress.

“We’re thinking really carefully about how to make this project be something that teachers truly derive benefit from and that will make them feel better, not more stressed and challenged,” he said.

Castle added, “A layer of excitement and potential I see with this project is that it is being sponsored by the Administration of Children and Families, the funder of Head Start.  They are the ones who write the Head Start policies and expectations and they are the ones saying, ‘we value child welfare and teacher well-being,’” she said. “I anticipate that some of the most valuable pieces of information we take back to them is to demonstrate just how stressful it is for the teachers and identify the compliance rules that are creating more challenges than solutions for the system.”

OU is one of six universities funded through this initiative by the Administration of Children and Families. Kwon said the intent is that the universities will work collaboratively together.

“They really want us to build these models together,” she said. “We’re expected to support each other, so I think this is a game-changer to eventually help set a positive direction for new policies and practices in a few years.

“The job of early childhood education teachers is to serve others – to serve children, but it is important to remind all of us teachers are as important as those they serve,” she added. “We want to give a clear message and raise awareness among teachers, families, school leaders, the public and policymakers that teachers should be more valued, rewarded and appreciated. The more we show care for our teachers, the more energized and more care they have to bring back into the classroom.”