Self-Care Course for Educators: Discover your New Normal
This course is the product of a short email I received from a colleague. He shared that he was worried about the well being of several teachers he was working with. Day in and day out, these teachers were facing situations that were mentally draining. Due to the demands and difficulties they were facing, they were questioning their abilities. After hearing his story, I asked one question – a question I want every one of you to ask yourself.
What are you doing to take care of yourself?
Unfortunately, educators tend to put others needs before their own. They are born helpers, providers, supporters, and nurturers. Being there for others, for their students, is often a number one priority. However, I'm here to remind you that it is possible to still do your best every day while making time for yourself. Does this sound like the place for you? If so, welcome! I hope you find something to assist with your journey. Read on and enjoy!
- Tips for Successful Course Completion
- 1. Out With the Old, In With the New
- 2. Why Now? Why This?
- 3. I’m Too Busy for Self-Care
- 4. Let’s Start Together
- 5. What’s Next?
- 6. Setting a Baseline
- 7. Putting It All Together
- 8. Need Ideas?
- 9. Be Kind
- 10. A Note on Self-Compassion
Here are a few tips to help you with this course.
Take your time. This course was designed as a self-paced course for a reason - everyone will go through this journey at different speeds. Some will need more reflection on certain components than others. Completion time will vary; however, each post will take less than 5 minutes to read. Additionally, some posts may have homework components that can be completed within a time frame that works within your busy schedule. While there aren’t due dates, please complete these without rushing to ensure an accurate final self-care plan.
Lean on your friends. This can be a challenging journey for some. If you are more likely to complete something if you have others holding you accountable, then ask some friends to join you! Help to hold one another accountable and take comfort in knowing you're not alone.
Reflect on your own needs. This is especially important if you are going on this journey with others. It is easy to see others' needs as your own. It is easy to find someone else's plan and make it your own. However, if it isn’t your plan, it won’t be reflective of your needs.
Self-care is not self-indulgence. Please remember that taking care of yourself is a human right. Making sure your basic needs are met is not self-indulgence.
Walking through the school hallways, I'm greeted by teachers and students with friendly waves and quick 'hellos'. At first glance, it would seem to be another great day fueled by energy and promise. However, when having one on one conversations, the truth behind the scene is revealed.
Some of our educators are tired. And rightfully so! They tend to be overworked, underappreciated, and mentally drained.
The worst part, in my opinion, is that this seems to be normal. It is becoming typical for weekend plans to consist of preparing lesson plans, grading homework, and creating class materials. Weeknights consist of emailing parents and colleagues, proof-reading, planning, and creating. Sitting in bed with your computer and notepad is now a nightly occurrence.
When did this happen? Why is this acceptable?
Don't get me wrong, I work with a lot of wonderful educators; many of whom go above and beyond without being asked to. However, we seem to be living in a world where it's taboo to have priorities and interests outside of the four walls of a classroom. I'm here to say that we need to challenge this way of thinking. It's time to remind educators that it is OK to take care of themselves. In fact, not only is it OK to take care of yourself, it is absolutely encouraged!
Together, let's create a new normal. You owe it to yourself, and you owe it to your students.
Think about your current reality. Consider you're answers to the following questions:
1. How do you feel going into work in the morning?
2. How do you feel at the end of the day when you are going home?
3. When reflecting on your career, what are the first emotions you feel?
You may be thinking "Why now and why this? I've already made it this far." If this is true for you, I'd like you to take a minute and think about this statement. How has your journey been? Do you feel refreshed and rejuvenated every morning? Do you have moments of doubt or low self-worth? Have previous years gone as well as your current year? Looking back, what have you done to make it this far?
At this moment, you might not think you need to practice self-care. Either you are having a rocking year and feel as though you have it under control or I just haven't convinced you that taking time out of your already busy schedule to focus on yourself is important. No matter your reasoning, I have a spoiler alert for you - research shows you NEED to take time for yourself.
In fact, research shows that teachers who empathize with their students and internalize their stories are more likely to develop symptoms of compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is defined as "Is the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person" (Hoffmann, Palladino & Barnett, pg. 17, 2007). Teachers are in a position, similar to other caregivers, that easily lends itself to being highly susceptible to developing close relationships with their students and thus, are more likely to experience compassion fatigue. If left untreated, or unrecognized, compassion fatigue can lead to burnout and early exit from the career.
So what does self-care have to do with this?
You must take care of yourselves in order to take care of others. According to NAMI, "Improving your relationship with yourself by maintaining your physical and mental health makes you more resilient, helping you weather hard times and enjoy good ones. You are able to adapt to changes, build strong relationships and recover from setbacks" (NAMI, Taking Care of Yourself).
Simple steps you may take on this journey include:
- Incorporating exercise into your daily routines
- Drinking plenty of water
- Eating a balanced diet
- Reaching out to your support system
- Finding your passion, and follow it
- Learning when to say no
There's your why. Now, you can decide what you want to do about it!
Take time to research compassion fatigue; learn the symptoms and treatment options. Once you complete your homework, keep exploring the site to learn how to recognize when stress impacts your physical and mental health, and what to do about it.
Sites on compassion fatigue:
No one should be too busy to take care of themselves. If you are worried that taking time from your day to implement self-care practices will have a negative impact on your daily performance, I want you to keep reading.
Have you ever traveled on a plane? If so, think about the directions you receive about steps to take in an emergency. You may remember the following statement:"In the unlikely evenT of an emergency, fit your own oxygen mask first, before attending to children or dependents." The underlying reason being that you must be in a position to help someone before you are actually able to help them. The same premise holds true for educators, on a daily basis. While you won't be needing an oxygen mask, you do need to have stable mental health and physical well-being to effectively support others.
Each year, educators are asked to do more, are given fewer resources, and are expected to help their students achieve higher and higher standards. In addition, students are coming to school with more experiences, some with traumatic backgrounds. Emotions run high, and stress levels tend to rise accordingly. Given the circumstances, it is increasingly important to engage in activities and practices that give you energy, lower your stress levels, and increase your well-being.
Self-care may look differently for everyone. For instance, some may focus on eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and implementing a consistent exercise routine. While others may enjoy weekly meals with friends, going on hikes, and spending time reading. Despite some differences, it is important for everyone to practice these activities on a regular basis, even when you are not experiencing high levels of stress. This will help keep your stress levels manageable and increase the likelihood that you are able to respond appropriately to everyday stressors.
As we get closer to writing your own self-care plan, answer the following questions for your homework:
1. What makes you feel good about yourself?
2. When was the last time you felt truly at peace and relaxed?
3. How do you typically replenish yourself now? Is that working?
First of all, CONGRATULATIONS on taking this first step. You are here, which means you are recognizing the importance of YOU! I really do hope that you will be able to leave this journey with a plan to take time care of yourself.
Before we start diving into self-assessments, creating plans, and starting new habits, we must first understand how to change behavior. In order to do that, we must take time to learn a little bit about Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). As a School Psychologist, understanding human behavior, and applying that knowledge to increase appropriate behaviors is one of my areas of passion! Let me talk you through some basic concepts before we move into applying those concepts to various scenarios.
To begin, it is important to know that ALL behavior is reinforced by something. Take a moment to think about this - why do you go to work each day? Is it because you love teaching? Is it because you want to make a difference in someone's life? Is it because you enjoy working with kids? Each of those questions has a built in reinforcement - access to preferred activities, self-fulfillment for making a difference, or seeing students becoming successful. No matter what the behavior is, there is always an underlying reinforcement that is increasing the likelihood that the behavior will occur again.
Reinforcement can either be positive or negative. Positive reinforcement is anything that occurs immediately after the desired behavior that increases the likelihood that it will occur again. For instance, giving your child a small allowance for cleaning their room on a regular basis, makes it more likely they will clean their room again. On the other hand, negative reinforcement is when you take away a stimulus following the persons desired behavior which increases the likelihood of the desired behavior occurring again. Let's say your child was grounded from screen time for having missing assignments. Once you receive an email from their teacher telling them the homework has been turned in, you decide to remove the punishment. Sound good so far?
Functions of Behavior
Most importantly, all behavior serves a purpose, called a function. In ABA, there are four commonly recognized functions: Escape/Avoidance, Attention, Access, and Automatic Reinforcement. When the function of a behavior is to escape or avoid, it means that the individual is trying to get out of a non-preferred activity or experience and/or are trying to prevent something non-preferred from re-occurring. An attention function can be met by receiving either positive (enjoyable interaction) or negative (corrective feedback or disciplinary actions) attention. Further, attention may be sought from multiple sources including teachers, peers, parents, or others. When individuals display behaviors indicative of an access function, their behaviors result in gaining a tangible or being able to participate in a preferred activity. The last function, automatic reinforcement, is more rare, but occurs when the behavior is not maintained by anything involving another person or items.
For instance, imagine you just finished a large class discussion and a student raises his hand to ask you a question. Once called on, he waits a moment and raises his hand again. Once again, you call on him and answer his question. In this example, the student's behavior (raising his hand) served the function of gaining attention from his teacher (access to attention).
Now, you might be wondering why all this matters. I promise, it matters quite a bit. In order to change our own behavior, we need to understand our current behavior. Now, take some time to ask yourself the following questions and consider what is currently reinforcing your behaviors:
- Why are you constantly checking your email when you aren't at work?
- Why do you stay late, even if you promised yourself you would go home on time?
- Why do you cancel plans to accommodate others?
- Why don't you take time for yourself?
1. Think about what is reinforcing your current behaviors. What is the hypothesized function of your behaviors?
2. What could reinforce new behaviors?
3. What changes would you like to make?
When you have those answers, come back and join us!
I'm so glad you're back! I hope you were able to examine your current behaviors and have determined what is reinforcing you and why you are doing those behaviors. Maybe you were hoping our journey with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) was over, I'm here to tell you we still have more to learn. Don't forget what you discovered after your previous reading, we will come back to that information soon! Right now, we are going to learn about shaping our behavior by using behavior chains.
How do we change our behaviors?
When we have a behavior we want to change, it is important to first have realistic expectations for what that change process will look like. We wouldn't expect our students to come in to our classrooms knowing one letter and leave that same day recognizing and writing all 26 letters correctly. That would be incredible, but completely unrealistic! The same holds true when making changes to our own behavior. If you are not currently practicing good self-care habits, you can't expect yourself to change overnight. You need to allow yourself time to grow and adjust.
To help you reach your goals, it is important to take time to determine what steps will be needed to make the final goal. Creating a behavior chain includes breaking a complex skill into very small, teachable steps. For example, let's say you decide you want to start practicing yoga five days a week for 30 minutes. In order to accomplish this goal, you may need to complete the following: determine if you will practice on your own or join a class, plan when and where you will practice yoga, become familiar with the vocabulary, learn stretches to complete before and after, purchase any needed materials, etc. Without taking time to think through all these steps, you may not be prepared to make this change.
Let's say you don't go through all the steps in the behavior chain and just purchase a yoga mat from Target and decide you'll start in the morning. When you get up and get your yoga mat out, you won't be familiar with any of the poses and may not know where to start. The experience may end up being more stressful than relaxing, so you decide to stop before your 30 minutes is up. Once you make that decision, you immediately feel relieved. Now, you have removed the stressful event (yoga) and have inadvertently reinforced yourself for giving up. After learning about reinforcement, we know that you will be less likely to try yoga again because you were reinforced for stopping.
Shaping our behavior involves reinforcing closer and closer approximations of the target behavior. Let's return to our yoga example and imagine that you have decided to do yoga independently each morning. In addition, you have researched various yoga poses, watched YouTube demonstrations and have picked 10 poses to start with. The first week, you may only be able to hold each pose for 60 seconds. Despite that, you feel successful for meeting your goal for one week and have noticed a change in your mood throughout the day. The next week, you push yourself to hold each pose for 90 seconds. As you continue to be successful, you keep getting better and better at the poses. This example shows how a behavior can by shaped by reinforcing smaller goals that lead to your end goal.
However, if we don't slowly shape our behavior expectations, we may not be as successful. Let's say that the very first week you start your routine, you decide you will hold each pose for 3 minutes. However, you aren't able to meet this goal and start to get frustrated. At the end of the first week, you are feeling frustrated and defeated. You skip the next week and feel much better. Unfortunately, in this instance, negative reinforcement is at play again.
In the next section, we will start looking at our current self-care plans and determining what changes we need to make to improve. When creating your plan, remember to apply what you have learned about human behavior.
Take some time to think through times when you have been successful and unsuccessful at changing your behavior. What worked well for you? What didn't work well?
Now that you know the importance of self-care, the impact it can have on your job performance, and tips for changing human behavior, we will start to take a look at your current self-care activities.
This self-care assessment is provided by ReachOut.com. It is a relatively quick assessment that will give you an idea of where you are currently focusing your attention, and help you think about other areas that could use improvement. The assessment will focus on seven aspects of self-care:
1. Workplace and professional self-care
2. Physical self-care
3. Psychologist self-care
4. Emotional self-care
5. Spiritual self-care
6. Relationship self-care
7. Overall balance
If you are interested, complete the self-assessment and review the results. Take time to think about what changes may be beneficial. Spend time considering what is currently helping and what practices are no longer reinforcing.
Completing the self-assessment is not mandatory for your journey. Feel free to use the list above to think about each aspect of self-care. Make a list of what you are currently doing in each area and what impact that is having on your performance. With areas that are lower than you would like, consider what might help improve this area.
Your only homework this time is to reflect on the results of your self-assessment. Continue reading to create a plan for implementing new self-care practices or improving previously attempting practices.
You're so close to improving your self-care practices! I'm so glad you are still on this journey with me and truly hope you are starting to see the benefit and purpose behind implementing self-care practices.
At this point, you should have a better understanding of what your current self-care practices are. In addition, you should have an idea of what aspects of self-care you could use some improvement on. If you're feeling overwhelmed and aren't sure where to start, pick an area that will have the greatest impact for you. For instance, if you are feeling the most stress about missing your kids events, coming home late, and not having time with your friends and family, starting with improving your relationship self-care might be a great first step.
"When creating a self-care plan, it is important that it is individualized to your needs."
While you may want to save time by using your friend's self-care plan, it will not address your specific areas of need and may not be helpful. Be sure that you enjoy and are interested in all activities that you include on your plan. The last thing you want to do is pick something from a list because it seems like an "okay" option. Only include what you actually intend on doing and what is feasible for you. Sure, you may want to spend one hour reading everyday, but can you find an hour in your day, every day, without sacrificing something else or causing more stress? If not, then rethink your expectations. Lastly, keep your plan where you will see it regularly. Remember the saying "Out of sight, out of mind"? Changing your behavior is hard work! Keep it in the forefront and make a conscientious effort everyday to follow your plan.
Refer back to what we learned about human behavior
Don't forget about your homework from the posts on changing human behavior. If you are trying to add a completely new behavior to your lifestyle, you will need to take things slowly and plan out the implementation. Don't just say you are going to do yoga for 30 minutes a day. Go the next step and write out the steps to reach that goal (behavior chaining and shaping), why you want to do it (function), and what is the benefit of adding the new behavior (reinforcement).
Create your self-care plan based on the results of your assessment (or time spent reflecting on current practices). Your finalized product doesn't need to be fancy. Write it in a way that makes sense to you. If you like to have more structure, consider using one of the following templates:
- Reach Out's template: Selfcareplan-2.pdf
Not sure what to put in your plan?
Feel like you have tried everything out there?
Want to look at what's out there before making decisions?
Not a problem! Included below are links to various resources on self-care activities. While reviewing these resources, keep in mind that you need to pick what's right for you, not what's right for someone else! Your plan needs to be individualized, manageable, and sustainable.
1. Self-Care Exercises and Activities from the University at Buffalo
3. 80+ Self-Care Ideas from the Self-Compassion Project
4. Seven Types of Self-Care Activities for Coping with Stress from Psychology Today
How has your journey been so far? Have you been successful with your implementation of your self-care plan? Has all gone according to your plan? Or have you experienced some set-backs? Are you reading this now thinking "Oh right....that self-care thing I started a while ago...where did that go?"
No matter what your response is, I want to remind you to be kind to yourself. Change is hard, and it is perfectly normal to experience set-backs. We will all face barriers to our goals at some point, that may complicate our journeys. However, just because you face a set-back or a barrier, doesn't mean you should give up or be hard on yourself.
If you need to start over, then start over. Don't dwell on previous attempts, just make a new plan and move forward. This time, think about what barriers you faced and try to plan ahead. Consider what made it difficult to follow your previous plan and create a plan for avoiding those issues again.
Research shows us that turning a new initiative into a habit can take at least 30 days. Review your plan one month after writing it to see how you are doing. If adjustments are needed, make them accordingly. Continue following your plan for at least three months before re-assessing your areas of need.
I want to wish you luck on your journey. Always remember that you are worth your time, and you can't help others if you don't help yourself first.
As you are embarking on your self-care journey, I feel it is important to take a moment to pause and reflect on a similar construct known as self-compassion. These two concepts may go hand in hand (if you are low on self-care, you may also be low on self-compassion); however, this isn't always the case.
What is self-compassion? Self-compassion has been defined by Kristen Neff as "being more willing to experience difficult feelings and to acknowledge them as valid and important. The beauty of self-compassion is that instead of trying to get rid of ‘Bad’ feelings and replacing them with ‘good’ ones, positive emotions are generated by embracing our suffering with tenderness and care, so that light and dark are experienced simultaneously." (Littlefair, 2015)
Kristen has been studying self-care for over 10 years and has broken down self-care into three main areas:
Recognizing our Common Humanity
She believes that we should treat ourselves as we treat our close friends. Be understanding, recognize that mistakes or low performance may happen, realize you are not alone, and see the event for what it is without exaggerating it.
If you are interested, she has created a short and free self-assessment that will provide you with scores for overall self-compassion, self-judgement, isolation, and over-identification. After you receive your results, check out her free webinars for addressing your areas of weakness.
If you are ready to take your self-care plan to the next step, consider incorporating the results of your self-compassion assessment into your current plan.
To learn more about self-compassion visit Kristen's website: https://self-compassion.org/
"Inspired by Kristen Neff’s article for Lion’s Roar on self-compassion, graphic recorder Johnine Byrne created this wonderful graphic recording of Neff’s three steps for self-compassion."