Foundation for Child Development YSP Spotlight

July 8, 2021

MAY 25, 2021

Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor
Department of Psychology
Georgetown University

Project Title: Understanding Publicly Funded Early Care and Education Workforce Supports and Well-being: Implications for Vulnerable Children’s School Readiness

Johnson, A. D., Phillips, D. A., Partika, A., Horm, D., Luk, G., Dericks, A., Hutchinson, J., Martin, A., Schochet, O., & Castle, S. (2020). Everyday Heroes: The Personal and Economic Stressors of Early Care and Education Teachers Serving Low-Income ChildrenEarly Education and Development, 31(7), 973-993. doi: 10.1080/10409289.2020.1785266

Johnson, A. D., Phillips, D. A., Schochet, O. N., Martin, A., & Castle, S. (2021). To Whom Little Is Given, Much Is Expected: ECE Teacher Stressors and Supports as Determinants of Classroom QualityEarly Childhood Research Quarterly, 54, 13-30.

Dr. Anna D. Johnson’s research sits at the intersection of two disciplines: she blends the theory and measures of developmental psychology with econometric quantitative methods. With an interdisciplinary approach, she asks exploratory and evaluative questions about how public policies can impact vulnerable children’s early development. Initially, she focused on publicly funded early care and education (ECE) programs and their impact on children and families with low income. More recently, her work has expanded to encompass the ECE workforce. Johnson’s interest in the role of early educators and how they help children to develop important academic and self-regulation skills aligned with the 2016 shift in the Foundation’s Young Scholars Program (YSP) research focus. In 2017, she became a YSP awardee and a member of the 14th cohort.

What influenced you to become a researcher?
I always knew that’s where I was headed in some ways. My graduate training was very focused on the intersection of child development and poverty research. I felt like that was the best way to understand how policies and societies can best support children. When you come from a tradition of thinking about the effects of poverty on child development, you’re automatically turning to research because you want to understand what the effects are and how you can make it better. I think there was an obvious point for me after graduate school where I could either go to a think tank and do research there or I could go to a university and do research there. There wasn’t a question of whether to do research, but more like where.

What led you to apply to the Young Scholars Program?
It was a confluence of events. The Call had come out and it was clear that the Foundation was starting to focus on workforce well-being. At the exact same time, my own research started to lead me to a place where I was understanding more about teachers’ own stress, their own supports, their own well-being. I thought it was actually going to help illuminate some of the unanswered questions I had been considering, like what other features of preschool classrooms and teachers might help support child development?

Tell me about your experience in YSP.
I’ve always felt like the Foundation is very personalized and very individual and not a big anonymous place. My experience with the Foundation and with the program has been really supportive and really engaging. I feel like they’re very interested in what’s going on. They’re very good at bringing the Scholars together for various meetings and conferences, putting together conference presentation groups, and getting us together to learn different skills. It’s a supportive program.

What was the most beneficial part of the process?
The various activities that the Foundation does to bring Scholars together. They do these [professional learning] convenings once a year. They put effort into building community. I found those in-person meetings to be really valuable. It’s just nice to informally get together with other researchers. You meet people who are doing similar work and I think that’s a nice way to build future collaborations.

What have you learned from your YSP research?
Lead teachers in our sample in Tulsa reported high levels of depression, food insecurity, financial strain, and mental stress. Yet there were very few associations between those things and classroom processes and children’s outcomes. To me, what that says is teachers are absorbing the negative experiences that they are having, and rather than having it affect their classrooms, teaching, and the children they teach, they’re dealing with it in another way. The sample in my YSP research focused only on lead teachers in a mid-size urban, midwestern location, so I look forward to future research in which I can learn about the stressors that assistant teachers encounter and explore the experience of teaching staff in other locations.

The research results suggested that the resilience of the teachers enabled them to still provide high-quality care and education to the children in their classrooms despite their stress and constraints faced. While this might bode well for the outcomes of the children, it does not for the well-being of the professionals themselves. I suggest that we’re expecting so much from teachers. We called one of our papers To Whom Little Is Given, Much Is Expected because these teachers are paid poverty-level wages and yet the country expects preschool teachers to prepare the next generation of students for success in school.

In this study, even if teacher stress doesn’t predict worst classroom quality or doesn’t predict worst child outcomes, from a gender equity and human rights perspective, we should be doing more to support this (largely female) workforce. 

In what way did your work as a Young Scholar result in new professional opportunities or experiences?
The chance to present research at a national conference [Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) 2021 Virtual Biennial Meeting], because of the support that the Foundation gave us. I also presented this research, Everyday Heroes: The Personal and Economic Stressors of Early Care and Education Teachers Serving Low-Income Children and To Whom Little Is Given, Much Is Expected: ECE Teacher Stressors and Supports as Determinants of Classroom Quality, at SRCD in 2019.

How did YSP help to advance your career?
After I got the FCD [Foundation] grant, I got three other really big grants. I was only able to get those because FCD [the Foundation] funded me at the beginning of my research program. I think if I hadn’t gotten the funding from FCD [the Foundation] at like the ground level, I wouldn’t have been able to show the other funders that I could do it.

What advice would you offer to early career researchers who are considering applying for the program?
Keep trying. Don’t give up on anything.

I had to try three times for this. This was the first time I could get funding so that I could do other things. If you don’t get it the first time, try again.