YAKIMA — Just before recess, a minor scandal emerged among the students in an East Valley preschool classroom. One girl accused another student of taking her “little baby spider,” a toy spider encased in a block of resin. A teacher asked her what words the girl could use to make the other student return it. Soon enough she had the arachnid back in her clutches. Crisis averted.
Small dramas like this teach children conflict resolution and self-sufficiency, a key developmental lesson for preschool-aged students. Kids who know how to peacefully handle problems themselves are better prepared for kindergarten and beyond.
But since the pandemic began, fewer students are entering preschool with the social experience necessary to build those skills. A recent report by the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP found a 17% increase in the number of children who enter preschool developmentally behind their age group compared to before the pandemic.
The Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, known as ECEAP, is Washington’s free preschool program for disadvantaged families. It prioritizes students who come from low-income households, are homeless or in the foster care system or have individualized education programs. It also offers support to students’ families. Head Start is a similar, federally-run program.
To serve students with high developmental needs, educators and administrators said classrooms need lots of teachers and aides. Those with experience in the classroom are increasingly valuable. But low wages keep potential workers away and more funding is needed to support the ones who stay.
17% developmental drop
Before ECEAP or Head Start classes begin each year, teachers administer a series of tests to check each child’s academic, social and physical development. These tests help establish a baseline for the child, can help teachers develop individualized lessons for their students and let parents know if a child is falling behind in developmental milestones, said Mamie Barboza, the executive director of EPIC, a nonprofit organization that oversees preschools in Central Washington.
In fall 2019, 79% of ECEAP preschoolers were considered developmentally at their age level. By fall 2022, that number had dropped to 62% of students, according to the report. The report emphasized that many ECEAP students and families are low income and from racial and ethnic minority groups, which were hardest hit by the pandemic.
Barboza said her staff expected to see some developmental delays after the pandemic. In particular, the use of masks likely would make it harder for young children to pick up on language intricacies.
“We anticipated a lot of language delays, but we are seeing a lot of delays in the other areas,” she said.
Barboza said children are coming to preschool with anxiety disorders, difficulty regulating their emotions and sometimes aggressive behavior. More students are also coming to preschool before they are potty trained.
EPIC Director Melinda Amaro said more students have been entering preschool with formal diagnosis, like autism, than before the pandemic. In some classrooms nearly half the students have high needs.
Longtime local preschool teacher and classroom team leader Adriana Rosiles said she’s noticed more anxiety on her students and their families since the pandemic began. During the early years of the pandemic, many of these children were with their parents constantly and may have gone without child care due to health concerns.
“A lot of them didn’t go anywhere,” she said. “They didn’t travel anywhere, just being stuck at home.”
Developing self-reliance and social-emotional skills in students is a top priority for educators right now. Building these skills takes time. Children may regress even after a long weekend, Rosiles said.
But some families have chosen to pull their children out of class due to anxiety.
“We’ve had a large turnover rate,” she said. “Like, if the child cries for a day or two, the parent will pull them out. And I think it has to do with both the child and the parent.”
Rosiles said preschool is a chance for students to acclimate to a classroom setting before they start kindergarten. Children who are pulled out never get that chance.
Providing complex care
To address the complex needs of students, particularly after the pandemic, preschool educators said they must be intentional in their instruction and care.
Stacie Marez is the director of ECEAP for Educational Service District 105. ESD 105 is a regional educational support hub that administers ECEAP and Head Start services. Its Head Start classrooms are known locally as Blossoms. For ECEAP, the district works with EPIC in a partnership called Seedlings.
Marez said this year, its ECEAP services are only at about 86% capacity. Before the pandemic, classes were full. But staff are taking extra care to set students up for success. She anticipated the program will be back to full capacity next year.
“We’re working really hard to kind of serve kids and families with more complex needs than before,” she said. “And so we’re taking our time with placement decisions.”
Marez also said that Blossoms brought back an instructional model called “sunshine circles,” designed to promote feelings of safety and community.
ECEAP and Head Start services take a whole-child approach to learning, which includes supporting students’ families. The programs are required to partner with community organizations to connect families to resources. Staff check in on families on issues like housing, food security and transportation, said Cynthia Juarez, ESD 105 executive director of early learning.
“We always know that children don’t function in the world alone,” she said. “They’re a product of their environment and what they’ve experienced.”
More support needed
Educators and administrators said more and better trained teachers are needed to properly serve high needs students.
Barboza said in an average classroom of 20, there might be five students with IEPs, four with behavioral needs and two who are still in diapers.
“That’s a busy classroom,” she said.
EPIC classrooms are capped at 20 students. In each class there is a team leader and generally two assistants. The centers also have family advocates that provide or connect families to wraparound services, Barboza said.
Team leaders have some form of college education, usually an associate in arts degree, but sometimes a bachelor’s degree, Amaro said. Assistants need some early childhood education training. Most EPIC employees continue their educational training in some fashion.
But low wages make it difficult to recruit and retain workers, educators said. About 80% of EPIC’s staff are paid minimum wage, Barboza said. As minimum wage rose over the years, the difference between a highly educated employee and a new employee shrunk.
Now, employees are pulled in either direction. Less-trained employees can leave for similarly-paid jobs that require less emotional labor. Employees with bachelor’s degrees can find better-paying work in the K-12 system.
The majority of local preschool teachers and aides are Hispanic women, often bilingual. Juarez said many ECEAP and Head Start employees are recruited from families whose children attended those programs. They see the value of these classes and want to give back. But Amaro pointed out that employees are in a tough situation, serving low-income families stuck in the same kind of poverty they are experiencing.
“Having the kids is the reward. I always tell teachers, that’s priceless,” Amaro said. “But we also know that there’s a reality where you have to have an income to be able to take care of yourself.”
Funding and respect
In 2022, EPIC experienced a 33% turnover, about double what it was in previous years. The organization decided to put more of its funding toward staff wages, Barboza said. Since making that decision, the turnover rate dropped significantly.
“We kind of had to roll the dice and say we have to do this now and then we’ll just see how it plays out going forward,” she said.
But she does not think that change is sustainable without additional funding from the state. She is concerned EPIC may have to cut some positions, including support personnel who serve high-needs students.
ESD 105 early learning officials said more funding is needed to help recruit and retain staff members. Lynn Harlington, director of Head Start services for ESD 105, said the funding should come without expectations of even more services.
“That’s usually what happens with more funding,” she said. “We need funding just directed to salaries.”
But early learning educators also want something beyond money: respect.
Educators pointed out that along with the parents, preschool is part of the foundation for students’ educational journeys. And as children’s needs compound, the job becomes more complex. Educators want that work acknowledged by the educational system and those who set their budgets.
“People rely on early learning to keep the country going,” Harlington said. “And we want to be respected and acknowledged for that hard, hard work that is going on in early learning.”