It’s no secret that educators and school leaders endure a lot of stress, from managing classroom and school communities to monitoring staff and student morale. When that stress mounts, negative feelings can shift inward. Educators may even shoulder the expectation that they must solve every problem on their own. But there’s a way to handle that stress, and it begins with self-compassion.
Simply put, self-compassion means treating yourself with care. As a developmental psychologist and researcher who studies educator well-being at Committee for Children, a global nonprofit focused on social-emotional learning and development, I’m well-acquainted with the myriad of challenges educators face. Extensive research suggests that practicing self-compassion is a vital strategy for educators to support and strengthen their mental health. But with so many competing demands, it can be difficult to prioritize it.
Educators spend a lot of time — if not most of their time — caring for others, which can make it challenging to prioritize themselves. As a mother, I can say that’s also true for parenting, which is problematic for educators who are also parents because the demands for attention and care are increased. While fixing up a hot cup of tea at the end of the day is a part of self-care, meaningful, lasting self-compassion requires intentional and consistent attention to our emotional and mental needs. And it takes time and patience for the work of self-compassion to bear fruit.
A common way to practice self-compassion is to consider how you would treat a good friend in the situation you’re experiencing, and then extend that same kindness and care to yourself. It’s about giving yourself grace. All self-compassion begins with this simple concept, but the long-term effects can be profound. In schools, there’s a clear link between educator well-being and the way students experience school. There is also evidence of an association between educator well-being and academic success in the classroom.
So, in the face of chronic stress, how can educators practice self-compassion? The following research-backed strategies offer a starting place. These strategies are simple, but they all take practice. Of course, these tips aren’t going to solve the systemic problems that put stress on educators such as a lack of resources or support, but with consistency and intentionality, they can help educators manage and reframe their stress in positive and empowering ways.
Set Goals With Positive Motivation
According to Dr. Kristin Neff, a widely recognized research psychologist, self-compassion can improve well-being and it helps us work toward our goals with positive motivation (the desire for our own happiness) rather than negative motivation (fear of failure and inadequacy).
For example, we may set goals to grow in our careers or friendships, exercise more regularly or improve a creative skill. Whatever those goals may be, self-compassion encourages us to examine our motivations for those goals and adjust them if necessary. If our motivation is negative — like exercising more to avoid gaining weight — we’re less likely to stick with that corresponding goal and may end up encouraging more negative thinking during the process. When our motivations are positive and rooted in self-compassion, say exercising consistently to feel more energized at work, that corresponding goal can become an opportunity to care for ourselves and appreciate the progress we’re continuously making, big or small as it may be. With self-compassion, personal growth is less about “bettering” ourselves than it is about nurturing and expanding the good qualities we already have.
Talk to Yourself Positively
Educators often hold themselves to high standards, and it is common for educators to feel like they’re not doing enough, or that they’re coming up short. But we’re all human. Expecting perfection of ourselves can result in feelings of failure or inadequacy.
I often encourage the educators I work with to choose a phrase to repeat when they’re being hard on themselves, inside or outside of school, for example: “I will be as kind to myself as I am to my students.” I encourage them to write their phrase down and put it on their desk or computer screen. Then, when they’re having a tough moment or notice self-criticism, they can read their phrase as an active reminder of self-compassion.
Another strategy that can be helpful is to set a phone alarm with a soothing message at a time or day when you tend to feel a little overwhelmed — after a difficult class period or challenging weekly meeting, for example. That alarm can offer a reminder of your commitment to self-compassion.
One simple strategy to manage stress and improve well-being is to develop a regular gratitude practice where you consistently and intentionally identify the positive things in your classroom, school, or organization. Research suggests that people who regularly practice gratitude report higher self-esteem and satisfaction with life, and the same can be said for educators.
Developing a personal routine to recognize the good things happening in your work, big or small, like teaching a great lesson, building a strong relationship with a colleague or simply enjoying your afternoon coffee can be helpful. School leaders can consider implementing a similar routine with staff, regularly encouraging their team to take stock of what’s going well, like a successful conference night, testing day or pep rally. Teachers can also consider a gratitude jar for the whole class, where students can share anonymously. However, take note that a group gratitude practice should not be competitive. Affirmation and rewards have their place, but gratitude encourages us to recognize the good things we’re seeing, doing or experiencing, regardless of whether they’re tied to metrics of success and recognition.
Of course, gratitude doesn’t mean ignoring what isn’t working, or pretending like some things don’t need to be fixed — after all, we don’t want to exhibit toxic positivity. Rather, think of gratitude as a well of positivity to dip into, especially when things get tough. Consider each small act of gratitude a drop in the well that you’re filling up for future times when you may need a boost.
Positive reframing is a technique that helps us look at a situation in a different, more balanced way. When something has already happened, we can’t change how it went, but we can change how we talk to ourselves about it. And if we anticipate something negative will happen in the near future, reframing can help us approach that event with a more healthy outlook. Research shows that how we think about an event affects how we feel about it.
Educators and school leaders can make a practice of reframing challenging situations that occurred with colleagues, students or families. Let’s say you need additional time to send out an important email to families, for example. Instead of beating yourself up for being late, think of how you’re taking extra time to prepare the best possible message to share with families.
It goes without saying that reframing will not solve the deeper, fundamental issues that can cause chronic stress for educators. It can’t magically increase school funding, reverse harmful policies or ensure every student will show up for class. What it can do is build the mental and emotional resilience needed to see these challenges clearly and to respond to them with perspective, optimism and courage. Reframing can help educators tap into the same resilience they strive to help their own students and colleagues discover within themselves.
Stay Consistent with Self-Compassion
For many educators, the school year brings countless challenges, but it also presents endless opportunities to grow in self-compassion. Think of self-compassion as a muscle that gets stronger with consistency and time. In the long run, patterns of self-compassion can have profound effects not just on individual educators, but on the school communities for which they care so deeply.