Self-Care is an SEL Strategy

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To those in our school communities:

What are you doing for self-care? This has been the question asked repeatedly of educators, administrators, school staff, school nurses, and others in education since the structure of schools changed swiftly when the pandemic hit in March 2020. Our own self-care is a personal social-emotional need that we must make sure we address in our own lives. If we are to effectively incorporate and model SEL skills for our students, we must achieve a balance for ourselves by nurturing our own social and emotional needs. If you have not yet committed to self-care, now is the time to do so. Devoting time to ourselves now is not only important, it is necessary in order for us to be effective educators.

We could not have foreseen that all that was familiar and traditional to us at the start of every school year would rapidly change: students arriving for the first day of school with their new backpacks, supplies, and sneakers; the hopes and dreams of a new school year shared by staff and students; school buildings with crisply hung bulletin boards and shiny waxed floors; our thoughts full of the summer’s staff workshops, meetings, and readings, and collaborating with colleagues while preparing for the first day of school. The fall of 2020, though, would start much differently.

When the school year ended in June, we saw exhaustion on the faces of many students who had been distance learning for the previous three months and those whose families were directly affected by COVID-19. Summer was about to start, but we were still dealing with remaining socially and physically distanced from relatives and friends.

My fifth graders graduated to middle school in June and progressed to their summer plans. We educators advanced into a summer of remote meetings, training sessions, and workshops. We were given the opportunity to better prepare ourselves for what would become another semester of distance learning in some form (full distance learning, in-person with safety precautions, or a hybrid of both). Our principal made sure to nourish our mental, social, and emotional needs with a balance of school-based community circles, morning breathing exercises, and discussions that centered around the needs of our children—individually, culturally, and developmentally.

As the summer continued, it was unclear which option would be used for fall classes. Parents and families sought answers, their patience beginning to wear thin with the uncertainty that lingered. In the meantime, we did our best to prepare for a transition into a school year that would be like no other in contemporary education.

Stress levels rose for both parents and educators as the start of school drew near. It was decided to stay with the city’s plan to reopen school buildings to in-person schooling on a limited basis. But questions from educators, administrators, and families remained. Were school buildings safe enough for students to learn in person? Would every school have a full-time or part-time nurse on staff? Was there enough personal protective equipment (PPE) available to all schools? Had the ventilation systems in each school been checked and verified to be safe for students and staff? Who would teach the students whose families opted for the hybrid model on the days that they did not attend school in person? And what about those families without devices for remote learning or reliable Internet access? How do we ensure equitable access for BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) students and families who are already experiencing the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately (CDC, 2020)?

The list of questions grew longer, and like many school systems across the country, we felt like all eyes were on us as we sought answers. Several plans were worked out, only to get word from school district officials that a change would be needed. So we would return to the drawing board, and revise and rewrite our plans. This repeated trend was met with repeated frustration.

While all of this was happening, I started to notice that conversations, meetings, and webinars I was attending would often begin with the question, “What are you doing for self-care?” It became a common part of conversations. I began to receive this question more casually, as if I was simply being asked, “How are you?” in cordial discourse.

It was now early September. More changes were requested to our plans, and school administrators trying to find teachers to cover the hybrid students on the days they did not report to school in person became an enormous challenge. Some teachers were reassigned to cover these hybrid students. The challenges increased while our school budgets were cut: Funds to provide devices for students in need had run out, leaving thousands of students without a device and unable to connect remotely. More changes were received, and we spent the weekend before Labor Day reworking our instructional plans, and raising questions, concerns, and fears about the risks educators were taking during a pandemic. Perhaps in an effort to protect myself, my body unexpectedly had a physically emotional reaction to the constant changes we educators were being asked to accept.

I cried. The Friday before we were to report back to school, I spent the morning crying. By Friday night, I looked forward to getting some rest and turning off my mind to a summer of relentless anxiety from planning the upcoming school year. I thought about my students who did not have reliable devices for remote instruction or dependable Wi-Fi. The frustration of wanting to be more prepared, more successful, and more effective was met with thoughts and feelings of my failure—failure to prepare properly and failure to be heard effectively. So it should not have been a surprise that at our Saturday morning remote staff meeting the next day, when I was asked, “How are you doing, Ina?” I cried—again. It was then that I fully understood the reason behind the question that my colleagues and I had been hearing so frequently: “What are you doing for self-care?”

Now that I know that my body can take over and handle my stress in unexpected ways, I share with all of you the importance of finding pleasurable, relaxing, and nourishing self-care options. Here are some that I learned that support me week to week.

  • Connect with family and friends. Whether it is a phone call, an email, a text, or even a letter, connecting with family and friends can help you navigate away from your stressors and toward the caring individuals in your life.
  • Express gratitude. Remembering to be grateful for all that you do have is a good reminder that we are blessed and that leads to a positive mindset.
  • Move more. Walking, exercising, dancing—movement releases endorphins in our bodies that help with feeling good and being positive.
  • Breathe deeply. “When you feel life out of focus, always return to basic of life—breathing.” Mr. Miyagi’s advice from the movie The Karate Kid Part II are valuable words to embrace.
  • Schedule dedicated downtime. Schedule downtime to allow yourself to unwind from the demands of teaching. Be aware of when you need to focus attention on your life outside of work to restore a healthy balance between the two. Meditate, pray, reflect, be mindful. These practices can help promote peace of mind, clarity, relaxation, and kindness. They can be practiced anywhere, alone or shared together with others.
  • Listen to music. Many times when we listen to music our memories fill up and can overflow with the moods evoked by the music we listen to.
  • Laugh. We are all probably familiar with the sayings about laughter. It is a great way to de-stress, ease tension, and lift your spirits. Share culture and celebrations. Finding joy and comfort in celebrations and cultural traditions that are meaningful to you and those close to you can fill you with love, gratitude, and blessings.
  • Unplug. Especially popular while sheltering in, binge-watching television shows, movies, or music videos can provide an enjoyable way for relaxing and setting aside stressors.
  • Join a book club. Spending time with friends and loved ones in a low-key book club can help with connecting and sharing thoughts, ideas, and good spirits.

There are other options for self-care as well—viewing a sporting event, sewing, crafting, cooking, woodworking, journaling/writing, and shopping, for example. Find activities that please you and lift your spirit, and look for opportunities to decompress and focus on self-care. Stress levels are high during these times. We have all experienced uncertainty and anxiety over the last few months. As educators and caretakers, we tend to the needs of students, families, and colleagues over the course of the school year. And this is all in addition to the needs of our own families and loved ones. As many caretakers will agree, when our hearts, souls, minds, and spirits are nourished, we are better able to help others with clarity, energy, and focus. Consider self-care as an SEL strategy for our students, their families, and our well-being collectively. What are you doing for self-care?