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How to Address Compassion Fatigue in Early Care & Learning Professionals

Feb 21, 2024    |   Educator Self-Care

Those who care for young children have big hearts and work hard to create loving, nurturing relationships with the little ones in their care. Working in the field of early childhood care and education is incredibly rewarding, but it can also be quite exhausting since little ones require a lot of energy, patience, and compassion. 

Working with young children and their families can be particularly challenging when a child or their family members have experienced difficult or traumatic situations. As educators, we form deep connections with the families of the young children in our care, and this can sometimes result in our own sense of wellbeing being negatively impacted by a family’s stressful or traumatic experiences. When this happens, it’s important that we take steps to ensure that the stress we feel doesn’t become compassion fatigue or lead to burn-out. 

This article explores the concept of compassion fatigue and its warning signs. You’ll also find tips and resources to help ECE providers establish a self-care practice that will help them recognize and take steps to prevent compassion fatigue and burn-out.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is a term used to describe the exhaustion that a person can feel when caring for or helping someone who has been exposed to trauma. In an article written by educator and advocate Nicole Homerin, M.Ed, compassion fatigue is defined as a “secondary traumatic stress disorder or response directly related to the feelings of helplessness and psychological distress experienced by individuals in helping professions.” 

When we work with children and families who have experienced trauma or other difficult situations, we listen to their stories so we can understand their needs and offer support. This active listening increases our ability to empathize with a family’s unique challenges and to demonstrate our concern for their wellbeing. Sometimes, however, we find ourselves internalizing the stress being experienced by the family, as we worry about how they are coping or feel a sense of helplessness because of our limited ability to make their situation better. We might even have our own history of trauma that can be triggered by their stories. This ongoing exposure to stress ultimately wears on our brains and leads to compassion fatigue. 

Compassion Fatigue Warning Signs

Compassion fatigue can show up in a variety of different ways. A fact sheet and chart (below) from California Learning Collaborative on Alternative Education’s article entitled Building Resilience Among Educators,  lists several potential warning signs of compassion fatigue. The warning signs for ECE professionals to look out for are grouped into four categories: Cognitive, Emotional, Behavioral, and Physical.

Who is Susceptible to Compassion Fatigue?

An excerpt from NAEYC’s book Trauma and Young Children: Teaching Strategies to Support and Empower Children explains: “Everyone who teaches children with a trauma background is susceptible to developing compassion fatigue. Some early childhood educators, however, are more likely than others to develop this condition: women, new teachers, those who are most empathic by nature, and those who have their own unresolved personal traumas.” 

How Can I Avoid & Prevent Compassion Fatigue?

The best way to avoid compassion fatigue is to set aside some time to care for yourself. While self-care might feel indulgent, it is a necessary part of our work as educators. Without making space to care for ourselves, we cannot show up and be fully present for the children and families in our care. Self-care can look different for each early care professional, varying by a person’s time, needs, and personality. Listed below are a few simple, preventative self-care practices that might be a good fit for you:

  • Try out a brief mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is a simple way to connect with ourselves throughout the day. It invites us to tune into our bodies, our surroundings, and our minds to notice how we are doing. If you are new to mindfulness, you might enjoy some of the following free resources:
  • Meet with your director/ECE leadership team. If you are working in a center-based setting, you might consider meeting with your director or someone else in your organization who can offer support and guidance. During this meeting, you can share about your stress levels and the specific situation that has triggered that stress. Ask your program manager to work with you to brainstorm strategies for creating more balance in your daily routines. 
  • Ground in gratitude. When things feel overwhelming or negative, it can be helpful to start a regular gratitude practice. One way to practice gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal, where you can write down a few events or parts of your day that have a positive impact on your life. Or, you might start your day by taking a few minutes to say, out-loud, five things that inspire you to be grateful. Making gratitude a daily habit helps combat the stressful feelings of worry, negativity, or compassion fatigue that can sometimes find their way into our busy lives. 
  • Consider seeking mental health support. While it can be daunting to think about finding and speaking with a therapist or mental health professional, it can be extremely helpful for those of us who are experiencing compassion fatigue. Even when we find joy and meaning in our work with children and families, some of the situations we encounter at work can trigger emotions, especially for those of us who carry our own trauma. Talking to a licensed mental health professional can help us recognize our challenging emotions and develop tools we can use to process them. When the cost or availability of mental health support is a potential barrier, some of the following options might help you get started: 
    • Look into your county’s local mental health resources to find local, community-based support options.
    • Reach out to your insurance plan provider to see if you can get connected to a mental health provider within your network.
    • Visit Psychology Today to find a mental health professional in your area.
    • Consider looking into “sliding scale” therapy options (this means that fees are variable based on income and other factors).

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