Why Teacher Self-Care Matters and How to Practice Self-Care in Your School

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Because teaching is such an intensive job, educators can greatly benefit from learning about and practicing self-care. Unfortunately, teachers may worry that taking care of themselves can lead to self-absorption and distract them from their students. However, despite the misleading title, self-care isn’t at all about selfishness.

In fact, practicing self-care can be in the best interest of everyone in your classroom. Self-care is all about taking care of your health and making sure that you have everything you need to thrive as a teacher. Without taking care of yourself, you won’t have the energy to help your students.

Self-care can keep you at the top of your game and ready to handle any challenges that come up during your teaching career. Read on to discover what self-care is, why it’s important for educators, and how to bring it into your daily life as well as into your school.

What is Self-Care?

Self-care is an important component of a teacher’s mental health, but there are misconceptions about what it is. It’s common for educators to dismiss the self-care movement as “selfish” or “superficial.” But for teachers, self-care is so much more than breakfast in bed or treating yourself to a spa day. It’s about taking care of your health so that you’re prepared to be the best teacher you can be for yourself and your students.

The definition of self-care is any action that you use to improve your health and well-being. According to the National Institute of Mental Illness (NAMI), there are six elements to self-care:[2]

  • Physical
  • Psychological
  • Emotional
  • Spiritual
  • Social
  • Professional

Ideally, a healthy self-care strategy should include an activity that addresses each of these factors every day. That way, you can make sure that every element of your overall health and well-being is taken care of. Self-care activities can be small- to large-scale habits, with examples ranging from packing a healthy lunch to waking up early every day to do a mindfulness meditation before work.

Some teachers may make the mistake of confusing self-care with self-indulgence. But unlike self-care, self-indulgent activities don’t have lasting benefits. While self-care helps promote long-term health, self-indulgent habits (like marthon watching TV or eating junk food) substitutes solutions to problems with short-term fixes.[4] Although teachers are right that self-indulgence will likely not improve their health, everyone not only deserves self-care but needs it to thrive.

Why Is Self-Care Important for Teachers?

The importance and benefits of self-care extend to every profession, but within some careers it is more stigmatized than in others. People in caregiving positions like teachers, for example, often find it easier to tell others to take care of their health than to do so themselves.[7] Because educators are encouraged to focus so much energy on others and so little on themselves, self-care is necessary for teachers to maintain good mental health.

In particular, self-care can be a great way to prevent or treat teacher stress. Over 40% of teachers report feeling high stress every day during the school year, which ties teaching with nursing as having the highest stress rate of any career.[13] Causes of stress can include lack of resources, class behavioral problems, or pressure relating to standardized test expectations, just to name a few, but they all lead to the same outcomes: weakened physical and emotional health.[1,5]

When left unchecked, teacher stress can lead to burnout and contribute to the high turnover rate in education. But self-care can turn this around and help keep teachers from getting burned out.[4] This means that self-care isn’t just a good personal habit, but it’s in your students’ and colleagues’ best interest, too. By eating well, sleeping enough, exercising, and finding other ways to take care of yourself, self-care can help your reach your potential in the classroom, which will in turn help your students succeed, too.[8]

Self-Care Ideas for Teachers

Now that you’ve learned why self-care can be one of the best stress management strategies for teachers, it’s important to find ways to incorporate it into your daily life. Making time for self-care doesn’t require you to rearrange your entire schedule. By taking small steps every day and figuring out how to take care of yourself, you can cultivate health and well-being.

Because every person’s schedule and specific needs are different, practicing self-care can look different for everyone. A list of self-care activities for teachers could include the following ideas:

  • Because teaching can be socially overwhelming, make sure to plan at least 10 or 20 minutes a day where you can take a break and decompress by yourself.[3]
  • Without a sense of compassion for yourself, you can’t practice positive self-care. If you struggle with low confidence levels, find ways to work on and improve your self-image.[2]
  • Bring a self-care “emergency pack” to school with things you enjoy so you can de-stress during your break if needed.[4]
  • Learning to recognize and process your emotions can lead to healthy self-care habits. Keep a journal and write in it to work through difficult teaching days when you feel overwhelmed.
  • Social support is an important factor in self-care, so find a way to connect with loved ones at least once a day. This could be having dinner with your family, calling a friend, or relaxing with your significant other.[1]

Once you’ve brainstormed a few self-care activities that work for you, the next step is making time for them in your schedule. Create a plan to engage yourself in all the elements of self-care every day.[6] If you find yourself lacking a specific element, focus on it and find activities that help you feel fulfilled in that way. If you’re feeling low on social self-care, for example, you could make sure to visit a friend at least once or twice a week. Or if you’re lacking physical self-care, you could make it a habit to go to the gym every day after work.

Sometimes, stress and burnout can become severe enough that teachers can’t overcome it on their own.[1] In this case, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to seek counseling or another form of professional help.[6] Medical professionals can help teachers put together a self-care plan that addresses specific needs, as well as treat burnout or mental illnesses like anxiety or depression.

20 Self-Care Activities for Class

Now that you understand how self-care can help your mental health as a teacher, you may also want to use group self-care activities in class. Student stress is just as prevalent and damaging for children as it can be for educators. Practicing self-care activities can help students learn how to manage and cope with challenging situations.[5]

Here are 20 self-care activities that you can use with your students to teach them the importance of caring for their mental, emotional, and physical health:

1. Personal reflection activities can teach students how to process their emotions. Try journaling or having group discussions about how your students are feeling about a certain topic and what that means to them.[2]

2. Meditation is a mindfulness practice that can help students focus on the present. Try this meditation for kids from Sesame Street as a class.

3. Use these emotion cards to help children recognize their own feelings.

4. Self-care can also involve connecting with people we care about. Make kindness postcards as a class for your students to send to a loved one.

5. Older elementary students can fill out this Self-Care Promise worksheet to brainstorm ways that they can treat themselves with compassion.

6. Use these mental health check-in questions to keep tabs on how your students are doing.

7. Doing get-to-know-you activities as a class can help students bond with their classmates and feel less alone.[9]

8. Make positive self-talk journals together to help your students practice thinking better about themselves.

9. Give this printable list of self-care activities to families as a way to help children and caregivers learn self-care together.

10. For early elementary students, these sensory play ideas can make for self-care activities that also boost cognitive development.

11. Help your students write a self-compassionate letter.

12. Try doing a read-aloud with books that teach students important social-emotional skills, like We’re All Wonders by R.J. Palacio or The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds.[10]

13. This Breathe Boards activity can make for a great way to practice de-stressing.

14. Say a few positive affirmations as a class, like “I believe in my goals and dreams.”

15. School can sometimes be overwhelming for students, too. Plan quiet time for reading or doing homework into your class schedule so students have time to decompress.

16. Do a little yoga to unwind and practice mindfulness together.

17. Try these mindfulness task cards to give students a variety of self-care options.

18. Play self-care bingo. The person who does the most self-care activities in a row within a set number of days wins!

19. If your students are feeling too restless to meditate, consider taking a mindful walk around the school instead.

20. If you have a student who struggles with anxiety, share this Worry Jar activity with them as a self-care practice.

Sources:

1. Yang, X., Ge, C., Hu, B., Chi, T., and Wang, L. Relationship between quality of life and occupational stress among teachers. Public Health, 123(11), November 2009, pp. 750-755.

2. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Self-Care Inventory. Retrieved from nami.org: https://www.nami.org/getattachment/Extranet/Education,-Training-and-Outreach-Programs/Signature-Classes/NAMI-Homefront/HF-Additional-Resources/HF15AR6SelfCare.pdf.

3. University of Colorado Hospital. Self Care. Retrieved from ucdenver.edu: http://www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/medicalschool/departments/medicine/Hematology/bloodcancerandbmtprogram/patient/PatientSupport/Documents/Self%20Care.pdf.

4. MindPeace. Self Care Guide. Retrieved from mindpeacecincinnati.org: http://mindpeacecincinnati.com/wp-content/uploads/SelfCareReportR13.pdf.

5. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Outlook Handbook: High School Teachers. Retrieved from bls.gov: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/high-school-teachers.htm#tab3.

6. Thomas, D.A., and Morris, M.H. Creative Counselor Self-Care. Vistas Online Journal, 2017, pp. 1-11.

7. Coaston, S.C. Self-Care Through Self-Compassion: A Balm for Burnout. The Professional Counselor, 2017, 7(3), pp. 285-297.

8. Wei, M. Self-care for the caregiver. Retrieved from harvard.edu: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/self-care-for-the-caregiver-2018101715003.

9. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. Strategies for Helping Pre-School and School-Age Children Develop Self-Help Skills in the Inclusive Child Care Setting. Retrieved from tamu.edu: http://extensiononline.tamu.edu/online_course_material/Course610/file/selfhelpscript.pdf.

10. Technical Assistance and Training System. Helping Your Child Develop Independence: Self-Care Skills. Retrieved from ucf.edu: https://tats.ucf.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2017/11/Adaptive-in-home-number-3-all-skills.pdf.

11. Anver, B., and Molina, M. Self-Care Tools, Strategies and Assessment. National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project, June 2014, pp. 1-3.

12. McNutt, L., and Watson, M. Self-care: Managing compassion fatigue. InnovAiT, May 2015, 8(6), pp. 364-367.

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