An Innovative Opportunity to Improve Workforce Retention in the Early Childcare Industry

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Black and white of students in a classroom writing | Treehouse Learning Early Childhood Education Daycare Boulder Louisville East Boulder County

As part of our $45K award for the CIRCLE Grant, our innovative and community-based initiatives to improve resilience, equity, and sustainability in early childcare environments are focused on addressing the systemic challenges of improving workforce retention, supporting workforce preparedness, and innovative practices for improving early childhood outcomes.

In partnership with the Colorado Department of Early Childhood, Early Milestones is leading the Community Innovation and Resilience for Care and Learning Equity (CIRCLE) Initiative. This initiative will provide nearly $23 million in grants to childcare providers and other community, education, or governmental partners pursuing innovative solutions to challenges worsened by the pandemic.

Staff Retention and Supporting Staff in a Challenged Early Childcare Industry

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A major aim of the CIRCLE Grant program is to gain data and insight on workforce retention and turnover and inspire innovation to improve the entire system of early childhood education. Treehouse Learning is proud to be part of innovative solutions to solve a workforce crisis within the early childhood education/daycare sector that has massive impacts on the well-being and development of children, the overall health of a community, and the broader economy as a whole. 

The CIRCLE Grant interim report requirement gave Treehouse Learning a wonderful opportunity to self-reflect on where we’ve been, what we’ve improved, and where we are now with our grant initiatives. Already, both the data and the lived, embodied, grounded experiences of children, staff, and families show us that we’re getting some important things very right!

First, the industry context. Workforce turnover across the daycare / early childhood industry is at crisis levels, with an estimated 100K workers leaving the industry since the pandemic. Treehouse Learning hasn’t been immune to high staff turnover. Turnover is a symptom of a massive systemic failure that negatively impacts children, people-intensive businesses, and even the broader economy. There is scant data on workforce retention in early childcare in the post-pandemic landscape, but even pre-pandemic, low wages and high rates of burnout resulted in turnover rates nearly 4 times the level of K-12 educators, and highly correlated to staff wages.

The good news is that we now have data to support the impact of positive and intentional changes we’ve made making at Treehouse Learning since our leadership transition at the end of May 2022. Our CIRCLE Grant initiatives are intentional and responsive opportunities to support whole brain development and integration for all humans within the Treehouse Learning Family. 

You can read more HERE about the specifics of our CIRCLE grant initiatives to improve early childhood outcomes, increase workforce preparation, and increase workforce retention. Below are some highlights and insights on how we’re doing to meet that last objective of improving workforce retention.

Early Childhood Education Workforce Retention: Where we’ve been, and where we are now

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  • Only 39% of staff who worked here in August of 2021 remained at the end of the academic year in May 2022 (!)
  • 84% of all staff employed in August 2022 remain employed at present
  • 59% of our staff has been hired or re-hired within the year (which includes the significant portion of staff who returned to Treehouse Learning)
  • 16% of staff have been with Treehouse Learning for over 10 years of cumulative program experience
  • 24% of our staff are “returning Veterans” who returned or recommitted since our leadership change in April 2022
  • 75% of our staff make at or above a living wage in Boulder County 

What does all of this mean? Treehouse Learning’s high staff turnover rates were far from an anomaly, especially within the context of the pandemic. We’ve made some major improvements and are trending in the right direction, and still have work ahead of us to return to optimal staff turnover rates. We’re also still predominately a “new team” that will only improve in effectiveness as we intentionally strengthen the organizational vulnerability that leads to a high-trust environment where staff thrives personally and professionally. As an organization, we also have almost 24% more staff now versus at the end of last year, which allows us to focus intentionally and effectively on professional development and our talent management strategy.

We’re also continually working to improve our hiring practices, including our interview and screening processes, onboarding and training processes, professional development opportunities, and staff evaluation and goal-setting processes. Interestingly, the circle metaphor is truly apt for our experience in meeting our grant objectives. This fall, we’ve partnered with another CIRCLE Grant awardee, Early Childhood Service Corps, who has supported us with free business consulting services related to our Hiring policies and practices and Human Resources needs. A win-win-win for our entire community. 

The Impact of High Turnover in Early Childhood Education

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Two things are true: As a quality early childhood education provider, we are intentionally trying to build community and strengthen our Treehouse Learning Family. At the same time, we’re also a business, which means we sometimes have to let people go when the fit, or timing isn’t a match. We hire real human beings, and we continually do our best to minimize staff turnover.

The high turnover in early childhood education is detrimental to children, teachers, programs, businesses, and the wider community. And yet, an organizational transformation that leads to mutual well-being and thriving individuals requires us to build leadership skills, practice vulnerability to have hard conversations, be brave in our learning, and seek an environment of improving communication and conflict resolution skills. We seek to support staff to thrive by embedding social-emotional skills into our entire workplace ecosystem. We seek to strengthen the organizational health of Treehouse Learning, and all of the humans within it. A thriving workplace requires strengthening hiring practices, and ensuring that Treehouse Learning remains an attractive, mutually beneficial, and viable place to have a career as a professional early childhood educator.

Children and adults alike are highly sensitive to staffing changes and turnover. Not only is it costly for a business to have high turnover, the relational severance negatively impacts the developmental needs of children. Strong relationships are the basis for all learning experiences, which means childcare programs must work to simultaneously support the continuity and consistency of relationships, and build strong communities. When staff turnover is low, the ingredients for quality early childhood experiences that support optimal development are present. Engaged and thriving staff support engaged and thriving children. 

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Whole People Support Whole Businesses and Whole Communities

Our goal is to build strong classroom communities rooted in the understanding that children thrive when the adults around them are also thriving. Treehouse Learning believes it is our responsibility to support and nourish all of the interconnected and interdependent components of this living human ecosystem within our community. In a short amount of time, we’ve made some massive improvements to our workplace culture that has decreased turnover significantly. We still have work to do, but we now have the benefit of positive forward momentum, or a Flywheel Effect, to paraphrase Jim Collins

We believe that the obstacles and challenges we face in life and as a business are our best growth opportunities. We believe that the zone on the other side of “easy”  is where children learn true resilience and strong social-emotional skills, and where humans of all ages are pushed to the edge where self-growth and positive maturation happen. We are committed to supporting all children as “whole persons” by taking a trauma-informed approach, seeking to attune to emotional needs, and providing a safe and nurturing environment where consistency and stable routines and rituals remain. This happens separately and simultaneously at the child and the adult level.  We take this approach in order to ultimately support a thriving workforce, and ultimately, to support the entire early childcare industry to thrive as well.

Improving workforce retention benefits Treehouse Learning. It benefits the staff. It benefits children. It benefits families. It benefits entire communities.

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