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Preschool-aged children’s executive function, defined as the ability to set a goal, make goal-directive plans, inhibit a dominant response and activate subdominant responses in order to achieve the goal (Garon, Bryson, & Smith, 2008), plays a crucial role in the development of cognitive, emotional, social and behavioral readiness for school (Blair, 2002). Previous research suggests that although executive function develops based upon biological maturation, children’s early environmental and relational experiences, such as child-care, influence executive function development (e.g., Blair & Diamond, 2008). In early care and education (ECE) settings, a safe, nurturing, and enriching environment helps foster children’s executive function development. For example, Jennings and Greenberg (2009) suggest that emotionally healthy teachers are better able to provide sensitive caregiving and positive guidance on children’s behaviors.
Although teachers’ psychological wellbeing may contribute to their classroom environments and child interactions, which may, in turn, promote children’s executive function, no studies have examined potential associations between teachers’ psychological wellbeing and children’s executive function. This study investigated two aspects of ECE teachers’ psychological wellbeing: teacher depression and job satisfaction (i.e., overall perceived work engagement and workplace satisfaction). We hypothesized that when teachers are more depressed or less satisfied/engaged with their jobs, children will demonstrate lower levels of executive function.
This study included a sample of 109 three- to four-year old children and their 20 lead teachers from 8 ECE center-based programs in an urban setting. Table 1 summarizes participant characteristics. Teacher depression was measured by their responses to 9 items using the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D, Radloff, 1977; Cronbach’s α = .73). Teachers also responded to 8 items about their feeling about their job using the Work Engagement Scale (Schaufeli, Bakker, & Salanova, 2006; Cronbach’s α = .92); 5 items asking about their satisfaction with their current workplace (Jeon & Wells, 2018; Cronbach’s α = .83); and their demographic characteristics. Children’s executive function was directly assessed at the centers using two NIH Toolbox tasks administered on iPads (Weintraub et al., 2013): a cognitive flexibility task (Dimensional Card Sort) and inhibitory control/attention task (Flanker). Parents reported on children’s demographics using a questionnaire.
Accounting for the nested structure of the data (children within teachers within centers), we conducted three-level multilevel analyses. The intraclass correlations (ICCs) at the center-level were .00 (Flanker) and .06 (Dimensional), and ICCs at the classroom-level were .07 (Flanker) and .06 (Dimensional). As shown in Table 2, after controlling for children’s age, gender, and race/ethnicity, teachers’ educational attainment, experience years in ECE, salary, and teacher-perceived classroom environmental chaos representing an unpredictable, crowded, noisy, and instable classroom climate (Wachs et al., 2004), higher levels of teacher workplace satisfaction were significantly associated with higher levels of children’s performance on the inhibitory control/attention task. In contrast, higher levels of teacher depression were significantly associated with lower levels of children’s performance on the cognitive flexibility task. This study suggests that intervening to support ECE teachers’ psychological wellbeing might be an effective way to promote children’s executive function.