Science-Based Self-Care

Teachers are master jugglers, as they attempt on a daily basis to meet students’ individualized learning objectives, support their classroom family, collaborate with their school community, and hone their professional craft. However, over the past year and half, teachers have been overwhelmed with the time commitment and effort it has taken to shift their methodology and teaching strategies to meet the new school routines of COVID-19.

Factoring in the necessary support needed for students, colleagues, and one’s self, and that math ― the minutes available in a day ― just doesn’t add up. Even in “normal” times, there is barely enough time in the day for teachers to balance everything, and the past few years have been anything but normal. Teachers are spending more and more hours working each week, leaving less time than ever to take care of themselves. From August-September 2020, 75% of surveyed National Board Certified Teachers reported “working more hours, with nearly 20% working greater than 15 hours more per week than pre-COVID.” Couple that increase with the fact that Horace Mann concluded that 60% of educators enjoyed their jobs less, and it’s not surprising that 28% of educators admitted in a nationwide NEA poll that the COVID-19 pandemic had made them “more likely to retire early or leave the profession.” 

With all of these pressures, there is value in repeating the need for self-care for educators, especially as they are the stewards and models for student self-care. Therefore, just like the airlines repeat their safety message each and every flight, we need to remind teachers to take care of themselves both personally and professionally. We know that repetition works when it comes to public awareness and education. So, it’s worth emphasizing that you can’t support your students well if you don’t take care of yourself first.

We know this at our core. And now, more than ever, we need to be ready, willing, and able to support our students. The recent research around children’s wellbeing and mental health is worrisome. From April-October 2020, the CDC reported that children’s mental health-related visits increased by 24% for ages 5-11 and 34% for ages 12-17. Last fall, more than half of children ages 11-17 reported to having thoughts of self-harm or suicide nearly every day or half of a two-week period, according to Mental Health America. The crisis reached such a pinnacle that in May, Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a pediatric mental health state of emergency, as reported by Colorado Public Radio.

So, what do you do when you feel a twinge of mental unrest or when you recognize that you’re already at your wit’s end? The simple strategies are often the most effective. It’s the old adage ― back to basics. As teachers, consider the advice you tend to share with your students, and find ways to apply that advice to your own personal situation. With that spirit in mind, reconsider how these science-backed tips could become daily routines and habits of mind:

  1. Find a time to reflect. Thumbs up or thumbs down: Do a daily wellness check on yourself. Ask yourself three questions: How is your mind? How is your heart? Your body? Such simple checks and balances will remind you to reflect on your emotional state, your physical state, and your overall well being.
  2. Breathe. Regardless of age, try some kid-friendly techniques such as counting backwards or elephant breathing. Try a few yoga moves; or simply end your day with a dance party. Such simplistic strategies can help you self -regulate your emotions, de-stress, and lower your heart rate.
  3. Make a list. UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center recommends starting each day by mentally “reattaching” and thinking through the day ahead. Try writing down three time-bound goals in the morning ― what will you do tomorrow, what will you do by the end of week, how about by the end of month? 
  4. Be prepared. Find other resources to lean on so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Check out COVID-19: Resilient Educator Toolkit, which is a suite of resources for you, your classroom, and your students’ families around topics like maintaining a balance, staying motivated, and embracing change.
  5. Be quiet. Seek out solitude, whether in a calming corner or some time with nature. Clinical health psychologist Amy Sullivan, PsyD, ABPP underscores not only the mental but the physical benefits of stillness. Quiet that inner noise and allow yourself to daydream.
  6. Lean on me. In the name of the popular song, lean on others and don’t go it alone. Reach out to others near and far, whether by phone, old-fashioned letters, emails, or social media. 
  7. Seek out the good. When you feel walled in by the negative, find ways to rejoice in moments of goodness. You might lose yourself in funny cat videos or follow social media outlets like the Good News Movement to see humanity at its best. Remind yourself of your day’s high, too, no matter how small it may seem.
  8. Take a hike. Literally! Go for a hike around your neighborhood or farther away for a change of scenery. Walking releases adrenaline, which can be toxic if it builds up. It “counts” as exercise, which the World Health Organization recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week for adults ages 18-64.
  9. Be a kid. Sometimes you have to go back to your roots ― and for good reason. Go hang upside-down from a tree (otherwise known as inversion therapy ― gravity helps release lower body pressure), chew bubblegum and blow big bubbles (can enhance mood by releasing stress, fatigue, and anxiety), dance (reduces cortisol and adrenaline and releases endorphins), and laugh endlessly (promotes connection while improving your immune system).
  10. Start small. Choose only three of the items on this list to help focus your efforts and take baby steps forward. Embracing a “new normal” is never easy, but then again … what is normal?