Self-Care: The Heart of Social and Emotional Learning

By Kevin Briggs

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In the world of mindfulness and compassion, all good things start with the individual. This is why analogies such as putting on your own airplane oxygen mask before helping others with theirs and keeping your cup full are relatable. The best way to take care of the people around us is to make sure we first take care of ourselves. This is the starting point for any social and emotional learning (SEL) initiative. Self-care is the heart of SEL.

Teaching can be quite stressful. The profession is often marked by physically and psychologically demanding challenges, and when these challenges occur they can cause teachers to cope in a way that leads them to leave the profession (Braun et al., 2019; Johnson et al., 2005; Montgomery & Rupp, 2005). This concern has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in additional stressors on school systems around the world. Because of the reality of teacher stress and teachers choosing to leave or not even enter the profession—and the impact this can have on student achievement and organizational health—it is important to develop and explore ways to mitigate teacher stress. 

The best approach to mitigating stress is to be proactive. SEL pioneer Maurice Elias found that when we reach the point of having a meltdown—when our autonomic nervous system is stimulated to the extent that we are emotionally hijacked—we are reduced to trying to minimize that experience (Kress & Elias, 2020). Or, as the Hindu devotional singer Krishna Das puts it, we can’t dry ourselves off in the middle of a rain storm. We can best manage stress and escalation via prevention, by nurturing our resiliency when we are in good health, or, at the very least, when we are not triggered.

Practicing Self-Care

Self-care is best approached as a consistent practice, something we can always do whether we’re pushing ourselves to the limit to finalize grades at the end of a marking period or easing into a much-needed day off. The beginning of self-care can start with a simple first step. For example, one program, Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE) for Teachers, starts with a commitment to the most basic practice of all: breathing (Jennings et al., 2018, p. 208; Jennings et al., 2019, p. 57). It is something we do every moment of our lives, whether we are paying attention to it or not. Focusing on our breathing is one of the premier ways to take care of our psychological well-being. 

Begin by taking three diaphragmatic breaths to reset the central nervous system. This is something we can do at any time, no matter where we are and what is happening. Educators can do this while standing in the hallway between classes, when monitoring the cafeteria, or as students work on an assignment. These three breaths can prepare you before speaking with a parent who would like to voice a concern or as you enter the building in the morning. Pausing for a few moments to take these three deep breaths cultivates the quality of mindfulness and well-being. Increased mindfulness will help cultivate compassion for yourself and others (Schussler et al., 2019), and, likewise, teachers who manage distress when exposed to someone’s suffering may be more likely to show compassion (Jennings & Greenberg, 2009). It all starts with simply and intentionally paying attention to your breathing.

Practicing Mindfulness

There are a number of mindfulness practices, and they can take different forms, such as eating, walking, and listening. Personalizing your self-care so it remains relevant and engaging is the most effective way to approach it.

The Center for the Promotion of Social and Emotional Learning (CPSEL) suggests a four-step approach to personalizing self-care:

  1. Be authentic.
  2. Name it.
  3. Give yourself permission to be human.
  4. Develop a single point of focus.

Steps 1–3 can be grouped together because they have to do with managing stress. The first step is simply admitting that we have stress in our lives. For example, some teachers believe that they shouldn’t be struggling with certain aspects of their role—they are expected to be able to handle it and, from a cultural standpoint, are often deterred from admitting that being a teacher can be challenging. But it won’t be possible to mitigate stress without first admitting it exists. The first step, then, is to be authentic—to be real—and to admit stress exists. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: “Speak the truth, and all nature and all spirits help you with unexpected furtherance” (1838).

Once you have committed to being authentic, step 2 names or labels the sources of stress. Be specific, too. Using just one word is often a good way to proceed, but use no more than two or three words. Keep the words impersonal. For example, choose labels such as “grading,” “disruptive student,” “compensation,” “personality conflict,” “disagreement,” or any other label that identifies the stressor without giving it any additional power. By labeling the experiences, boundaries are created around them, which can reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed. A seemingly endless number of student papers to grade becomes “grading,” an expected part of the job that may not be possible to complete during the workday. A student who often wreaks havoc on your class becomes a “disruptive student,” someone who may have challenging circumstances in other areas of their life and is therefore deserving of our compassion and efforts to help. By labeling sources of stress we can contain them, allowing us to better understand that they are not as pervasive as they may at first appear. 

After being authentic and naming the source of what is causing the stress, the third step is to be gentle with ourselves. To start, remember that we are not underperforming because we are experiencing stress, and that we are not incapable if we have 10 items on our list of stressors. We are human, and just like everyone else, we are susceptible and are perhaps to an extent hardwired to experience some kind of struggle. It sharpens our evolutionary trajectory, enhances our journey toward self-actualization, and helps us cultivate a more intimate relationship with ourselves and those around us. So, in that sense, it is okay. You have permission to be human because—guess what—you are. That is all you are and all you will continue to be. Besides, if you have made it to this step you are actually on a courageous path toward well-being and are doing great, so keep it up. Acknowledge it. Give yourself credit. Make a note of your accomplishment on a slip of paper and put it in a gratitude jar, or a write it down in a journal you keep by your bedside. 

The fourth step—developing a single point of focus—is actually the beginning of some additional steps:

  1. Think of something you love and that cultivates well-being.
  2. Consider where and when you can do that thing you love for at least 10 minutes per day.
  3. Make sure to do that thing.

Focusing on something enjoyable for a minimum of 10 minutes a day can have a positive physiological impact on your brain. 

Consistency is important, so consider it a practice that should be done every day to reap benefits. There are many options for a point of focus: meditating, lifting weights, fishing, dancing, gardening, hiking, or even just staring out the window. Some might prefer to use time with loved ones as their single point of focus, but maintaining consistency may prove more difficult when other people are involved, in part due to the unpredictability of others’ behavior. With this in mind, then, the best approach may be to do it alone. Otherwise, it does not matter so much what it is or where and when you do it. As long as 10 minutes a day cultivates well-being for you and those around you, do it. Following these steps is a way to build the health and perseverance that will allow you to more skillfully navigate challenging situations when they inevitably occur.

A Starting Point for SEL

Nothing exists in isolation. This can be the mantra for social and emotional learning efforts as students, teachers, and other members of educational communities consider how best to enable people to benefit from SEL approaches. Research clearly shows SEL approaches can significantly impact an organization and its members in a positive way (CASEL, n.d.), but SEL should not be viewed as linear or a finite bag of tricks that when deployed correctly will most likely work. SEL is a framework, a way of doing all things in an organization, from how you walk into a building to how you understand something you’re reading.

Self-care is a starting point for SEL implementation efforts on the individual level. Emerson (1837) notes that people are uniquely ingenious, and the more intimate they are with their genius, the more connected they will be with others. The capacity for being uniquely ingenious is something we all have in common, which makes it a point of unity. Similarly, that capacity individually and collectively unites us with truth and goodness, the bedrock of SEL approaches. Therefore, a foundational way to begin implementing an SEL initiative in an organization is to help people to get in touch with, explore, and cultivate their individual, inherent wellness and genius.

What other choice is there than for people to begin by taking care of themselves? If we don’t, the outcome of whatever we attempt will not be as good as it may have been. The result will be a shadow of its potential, a product of skimming, cutting corners, survival mode, or even possibly cynicism or burnout. On the other hand, those who do take care of themselves will be in the best position to make their most impactful contribution, which according to Emerson is nothing short of genius. From this perspective it all seems quite simple. As Pema Chödrön (2018) advises, people need to simply start where they are.

Imagine the first step toward SEL implementation as a robust, systemically supported, and mandatory self-care program to be sustained throughout a school year and making it part of job performance goals and report cards. Then imagine how powerful it would be to spend a back-to-school professional learning day designing your own self-care curricu­lum that was required as a term of employment. Instead of providing a list of everything the district, union, and state required, school leaders would set those aside and focus on who the people in the organization are, what inspires them, and why they chose to become educators. One thing seems certain: If SEL initiatives began that way, the SEL approach or framework that followed would likely be exponentially more efficient. Furthermore, absenteeism, burnout, and attrition would be reduced, and both students and staff would see benefits.

Whether using the rationales of Emerson or those of a mindfulness researcher such as Patricia Jennings, the support for starting SEL initiatives at the individual level is both advisable and urgent. Healthier individuals cultivate healthier lifestyles and relationships, and they lead to healthier organizations, societies, and cultures. None of us exists in isolation, so we should seize the opportunity to take good care of each other and ourselves and be as collectively healthy as possible. Self-care does not enable SEL to happen, but it is the first step in any SEL initiative. Without this first step, our health and our contributions will never be as consequential as they can be.

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Kevin Briggs

Kevin Briggs worked for 22 years as a high school English teacher and as a middle school and high school assistant principal. He is currently the managing coordinator of professional learning at the Center for Schools and Communities. Kevin has a DEd in educational leadership from Pennsylvania State University and an MEd in English education from Millersville University. Kevin’s recent re- search explores participants’ experiences with mindfulness and compassion practices in a mindfulness-based intervention program for teachers, and he is currently developing modules to help future healthcare workers cultivate compassion for victims of sexual assault.