Self-Care Within Education: 9 Science-Backed Tips for Thriving During and After Trauma

By: Camile Earle-Dennis

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How does science support the need for self-care?
9 science-backed tips for self-care during and after trauma

 

The idea of self-care can often be a misleading one. As we consider our roles within education, it may be difficult to imagine that taking care of ourselves is a necessary factor in taking care of others. This is especially true in the field of education. As educators, we are so busy taking care of everyone else that the very thought of focusing on ourselves seems so contrary to our selfless roles; especially when we are engaged in crisis.

As the needs of children and adults increase, it may seem impossible to justify how a focus on self through self-care could help close the ever-increasing global educational and performance gaps.

At Learning Sciences International (LSI), we focus on the concept of “me before we” through neuroscience lenses. Below, read what the research says about why self-care is important right now, how to manage stress and avoid its many effects, and how our well-being affects performance.

We also include 9 science-backed tips for thriving during and after trauma. These tips will help you better understand why we must take care of our emotional well-being first.

Recognize that self-care is a selfless act

It may be surprising to learn that self-care is in no way selfish. At LSI, we teach practical, guided steps in the art and science of self-care because we know that a better me makes a better we. In our science-backed Adult Social Emotional Learning (SEL) SELF-CARE courses, we establish the why behind the compelling need to first focus on ourselves. The act of caring for self is far from selfish. In fact, it is selfless.

Participants in our Adult SEL SELF-CARE courses have reported that after they invested time in learning more about self-care and infused simple steps into their daily routines, they become better at what they do, better at coping with everyday life stressors, better at overcoming obstacles with guiding coping mechanisms, and better in their overall emotional and physical well-being.

 

My colleague, Dr. Susan Schilsky, and I unpacked these concepts in a recent webinar we hosted during Self-Care Awareness Month. You can watch a recording of our session here.

Teachers are crying out for help: the global need for self-care

 LSI’s SEL team keeps a pulse on what is happening in the field through active involvement in social media platforms. Our recent social media pulse checks have uncovered an urgent cry for help from teachers and teacher leaders that are in need of authentic self-care and trauma informed strategies and tips.

The urgent need to learn how to cope during and after trauma is a global cry. A recent study surveyed 12,000 people across 11 countries about the impacts of COVID-19 on their work performance and mental health (Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, 2020). The study found the following:

    • 40% say their productivity has plummeted
    • 41% say they are challenged because there is less distinction between their work life and home life
    • 40% report an increase in poor decision making
    • 38% are experiencing more stress
    • 35% are experiencing a lack of work-life balance
    • 25% report burnout
    • 25% say they are depressed from lack of socialization
    • 14% are feeling lonely
    • 85% say mental health issues at work affect their home life in terms of sleep deprivation (40%), poor physical health (35%), reduced happiness at home (33%), challenges with family relationships (30%) and isolation from friends (28%)

Let’s consider these statistics and their connection to educators who are trying to not only survive, but also teach, lead, and thrive during a global crisis. Is it equitable to expect our educators to demonstrate coping strategies and engage in self-care awareness when no one has taught these skills to them?

How will our educators thrive during and after trauma? At LSI, we are equipping educators with the necessary tools to not only survive but thrive – in crisis and beyond.

Our team of SEL experts has decades of experience in SEL and trauma-informed practices. We have incorporated our collective expertise into our Adult SEL courses that engage participants through a guided, reflective journey of caring for oneself to better care for others.

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How does science support the need for self-care?

Now that we have a clearer understanding of the why behind self-care, let’s dig deeper into the science. Taking care of ourselves emotionally, mentally, and physically allows us to remain fueled and focused. When we are fueled and focused, we are presenting our best selves to others. This creates a synergy that invites others to also present their best selves to the team and to follow a synergistic model that contributes to an increase in individual and team performances.

Educators who participate in LSI’s SEL sessions and who are practicing the self-care tips we teach have shared that they are seeing an increase all around. They are seeing increases in their emotional well-being and the well-being of staff and students, as well as an increase in productivity and performance from leaders, teachers, and students.

Self-care in the midst of crisis

Self-care? How could this be possible in the midst of a pandemic and in the midst of crisis? Here are a few words from a participant at one of our SEL-supported schools in Connecticut, who shared:

“It is important for us to discuss how to take care of ourselves and our colleagues. This will help guide us in the right direction to make school a better place for our students.”

 

Managing stress to prevent neurological and physical effects

Neuroscience research tells us that emotions help to regulate behaviors and thought processes. When stress levels are high, the stress hormones that are released into our bloodstream may alter our brain’s ability to process information. We may know this as “brain fog” or difficulty focusing and concentrating. As described in figure 1 below, increased stress levels reduce productivity.

When we are intentional about engaging in self-care practices, we reduce stress hormone levels and increase the release of our happy hormones which causes what we refer to as a balancing effect. The most common happy hormone is oxytocin. Oxytocin is released when we engage in practices that allow us to feel a sense of belonging. A sense of belonging is what Maslow determined as a basic human need.

As we balance our hormone levels, we start to see brain fog clear, an ability to refocus, and renewed energy levels. When we are more focused and energized, we are better equipped to care for others. This is the neuroscience approach to SEL and trauma-informed practices that is unique to LSI.

You may also notice that in figure 1, self-care is an essential component for managing stress and emotions. When we are in a stressful state and/or exhibiting feelings of increased stress, our stress hormones are at a high. Cortisol is one of those stress hormones. An increase in the levels of cortisol can often lead to tension headaches, neck pain, and even high blood pressure.

Figure 1. As stress increases, productivity decreases. Practicing self-care can increase productivity.

 

Physician Lissa Rankin points out that, “Too much stress can destroy our health…The body is equipped with natural self-repair mechanisms that can do things like fight infections and slow the aging process, but they only work when our nervous system is relaxed” (Rankin, 2013).

Dr. Rankin goes on to share that the following warning signs may indicate cortisol levels are running higher than normal in the bloodstream:

    • Backache
    • Headache
    • Restless Sleep
    • Fatigue
    • Weight gain
    • Weakened immune system
    • Nausea
    • Heartburn

Functional medicine doctor Isaac Eliaz (2020) also warns that prolonged stress, when left unmanaged, can lead to serious illness and diseases which include:

    • Stomach ulcers
    • Stroke
    • Asthma
    • Cancer
    • Heart disease

 

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Lower stress to increase productivity and learning

When we dig a little deeper into the science behind self-care, we find that stress hormones can actually reduce productivity. Why? Experts in the field of educational neuroscience, including Dr. David Sousa, argue that stress hormones can actually prevent learning from taking place.

Stress hormones can block synaptic connections in the brain. These synaptic connections are what help us learn. They are what help us make meaning and make connections to new learning. When synaptic nerve endings misfire or fail to connect, we hinder cognition and learning.

Because neuroscience research has shown that increased levels of stress may cause a reduction in productivity and performance as stress hormones hinder progress, practicing self-care may lower stress hormones and promote an increase in productivity-boosting hormones such as oxytocin (often referred to as the happy hormone).

Take a moment and reflect on this idea and think about all the times you may have had trouble concentrating and/or learning something new. Could your inability to concentrate or focus on learning have been due to stress?

Now, let us reflect similarly on students. When students have trouble concentrating and learning, is it due to stressors and the inability to cope with those stressors? Do we ever consider that a teacher’s and student’s inability to perform at optimal levels are due to stressful or traumatic states?

As we saw in figure 1, the stress cycle repeats itself if left uninterrupted. In figure 2, we see how an intentional focus on balancing one’s stress and happy hormones through work/life balance can lead to increased productivity and performance. We will take a closer look at this in the 9 tips below.

Figure 2. Work/life balance can increase performance by increasing oxytocin and reducing cortisol.

 

“Me” mirroring “We”

Self-care practices give us an opportunity to reduce stress hormones, reduce confusion, and increase our ability to concentrate and learn. When we engage in self-care practices, we increase happy hormones and help reduce the level of stress hormones.

When hormones are more balanced, we start to see an increase in mood and productivity in ourselves and those around us. The balance creates a synergy between those we serve and serve alongside. This synergy is a mirrored energy that we refer to as: “Me” Mirroring “We.”

In LSI’s Self-Care and Self-Management courses, we teach proven methods of alleviating stressors and coping with accelerated stress. Our participants appreciate the focused time to take care of themselves, so they are better equipped to serve others. As one participant wrote in a post-session survey, “Thank you … It is so wonderful that self-care and social-emotional learning [are] taking priority now.”

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9 science-backed self-care tips for thriving during and after trauma

The following self-care tips can be easily incorporated into your daily schedule to help you formulate self-care habits. These habits improve your ability to cope with accelerated stress levels and find a balance of well-being that will increase performance.

Tip #1: Put self-care on your calendar

Once there is a clear understanding of the necessary why behind the need for self-care, we can then be more intentional about planning for it. Self-care has to stem beyond annual vacation time or holidays.

I recently started scheduling a daily 10-minute break. From 3:05 – 3:15 pm, I engage in Miami’s official Cafécito® time, a citywide tradition for taking a coffee break. Because I enjoy expresso, it’s something that I look forward to and work toward each day. My Cafécito time is a time to take a brain break, reflect on the happenings of the day, and prepare for what is next in my day.

There is a unique psychology behind scheduling events on a calendar. In fact, the founder of the calendar productivity tool, Calendar, believes: “If something isn’t in your calendar, it doesn’t deserve your time and energy. Having a meeting or event scheduled keeps you on track and productive. You’ll dedicate a specific amount of time to a specific activity” (Rampton, 2019).

Tip #2: Find an accountability partner

Finding someone that can hold us to our self-care goals is a crucial step to staying committed to self-care.

My fellow teammates are my accountability partners. In our organization – and especially during this time – we are all working behind the scenes as one team to ensure that our clients are receiving all the necessary resources and support that they need. Our relentless passion for this essential work can cause us to work well beyond our contractual hours.

If we are intentional about taking care of ourselves by setting self-care goals and checking in with a self-care accountability partner, then we begin to make habit-forming decisions that help keep us focused on the necessary components of me that further inform the we behind our teams.

This we involves a stronger focus on building and re-building community amongst ourselves and those whom we serve. It also provides an opportunity to identify and activate existing strengths all while developing new ones. This is another focus area of our SEL course offerings.

Tip #3: Tracking your progress is effective in healing from trauma

Map your self-care journey by tracking your progress. Registered psychologist, Dr. Patrick Keelan (n.d.), explains the benefits of this approach:

“By tracking signs of healing the person can move toward the view that, despite the negative impact of the event on them at the time it occurred, it is no longer interfering with their life in significant ways. This shift in belief can often be a critical factor leading the person to be able to put the event in their past while they move forward with their life.”

Because we know that stresses and stressors will always come, we teach the tips and strategies necessary to navigate through crisis in our SEL courses. We teach participants how to tap into their natural ability to bounce back and encourage them to track their growth along the way with a personal reflective journal.

Tip #4: Rest is the best medicine for healing

According to the National Sleep Foundation (Suni, 2020), adults need 7-9 hours of sleep each night. The foundation recommends a few guidelines for ensuring optimal rest, including:

    • Following a set sleep schedule and adhering to it daily (even on weekends)
    • Quieting your mind before sleep
    • Unplugging from electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime

When we follow these simple steps for resting, we allow our minds and bodies to reset which may enhance our performance. Dr. Christopher Barnes (2018), Professor of Management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, explains that leaders who take care of themselves by getting the proper amount of sleep can lead better:

“Sleep allows us to consolidate and store memories, process emotional experiences, replenish glucose (the molecule that fuels the brain), and clear out beta-amyloid (the waste product that builds up in Alzheimer’s patients and disrupts cognitive activity). By contrast, insufficient sleep and fatigue lead to poor judgment, lack of self-control, and impaired creativity. Moreover, there are lesser-known secondary effects in organizations. My research shows that sleep deprivation doesn’t just hurt individual performance: When managers lose sleep, their employees’ experiences and output are diminished too.”

Tip #5: Nourish Your Body

By now, we all know that eating a healthy, balanced diet is essential for optimal health. We also know that when we are taking care of our bodies, we are contributing to our emotional, physical, and mental well-being. Habits for Wellbeing (n.d.) shared some ways that you may nourish your body, including:

  • Engaging in physical activities you enjoy
  • Eating when you are hungry, not when you are stressed
Tip #6: Breathe

My fellow colleague and mindfulness guru, Rebeccah Potavin, often guides participants through deep breathing exercises during our Self-Care and Self-Management courses. These short breathing exercises help participants to regulate their emotions and bodily functions.

Science has proven that breathing helps to reduce blood pressure and allows us an opportunity to recenter and refocus. In our courses, we teach breathing as a self-care technique that may be used to increase performance through heightened concentration. We guide participants through the art of deep, slow breathing that can be practiced in moments of stress and taught to students to help promote co-regulation in learning environments.

The Mayo Clinic reports that intentional deep breathing can actually calm and regulate the autonomic nervous system which regulates our involuntary body functions, like temperature (Peterson, 2017). Taking the time to breathe can provide a sense of calm, even during crisis.

Tip #7: Take a Break

Taking a break is a challenge for many of us. In our efforts to meet deadlines, flex our creative muscles, and support our colleagues and teams, we often forget to take a moment and STOP.

Working for an extended period of time without taking breaks does not increase productivity. In fact, it can potentially lead to burnout and a reduction in productivity. For many of us, taking a break to think and reflect may seem like a waste of time. This is especially true now as many of us are juggling work and family during a global pandemic.

With these additional stressors, working extensive hours will not fuel our commitments to driving performance and goals. Studies show that we actually need weekends and nights off to disconnect and recuperate from the stresses of work (Park et al., 2011). Like a muscle, the brain requires recovery time in order to grow and develop (Berman et al., 2008). Taking breaks regularly can help us work smarter instead of harder.

Tip #8: Practicing work/life balance is an issue of equity

Dr. Dena Simmons, Associate Director of the Yale Center of Emotional Intelligence, relates work/life balance to equitable practices. She argues: “I believe that a stressed and burned-out teaching force is an equity issue, and if school systems truly care about equity, then they would do better at taking care of their teachers” (Learning Forward, 2020).

Districts and teacher leaders who have been looking for ways to engage their teachers in compassionate ways that demonstrate their belief in equity and access have benefitted from our courses on Self-Care and Self-Management because they too believe the words of Dr. Dena Simmons. They know that if we expect teachers to take care of our students, we have to take of our teachers.

At LSI, we have been very intentional about ensuring that teachers are cared for. A fellow colleague, Gary Hess, often reminds teachers and leaders in our SEL courses, “We see you!”

This heartfelt gesture serves as a gentle reminder that, as a team, we have a responsibility to lift up one another during difficulty. As fellow teammates, we must help guide and support one another on our self-care discovery journeys.

Tip #9: Celebrate Your Wins

The synergistic nature of “a better me makes a better we” means that practicing self-care on a consistent basis helps you stay focused on your goals and ensure you are meeting and exceeding them, which also benefits others. This is why we always encourage participants to celebrate their wins and share those wins with their accountability partners, friends, and family.

Celebrating wins releases another feel-good hormone known as dopamine. Dopamine helps to create a sense of reward and accomplishment and has been known to boost self-confidence (DuBois-Maahs, 2018; Amabile & Kramer, 2011). Celebrating wins may motivate you to repeat the rewarding self-care behaviors that fuel what we call the better me and better we.

Stay connected to us

As you navigate through our science-backed self-care tips, we ask that you commit to at least one of them so that when stressors come, you are better equipped with the necessary tools to reduce stress levels, help maintain emotional balance, and maintain or even increase performance levels for yourselves, your teams, and your students.

We look forward to continuing our support of your self-care journey through our virtual workshops, SEL consultancy, and complimentary SEL resources. We encourage you to check back regularly to learn more about our SEL offerings and field supports.

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Resources

 

Joys and Affirmations

A special appreciation to our CEO and visionary leader, Mr. Michael Toth, whose relentless belief in the capacity of all children fuels this essential work.

A heartfelt appreciation for our SEL team who I have the honor and privilege of serving alongside. Thank you for serving the field behind the scenes and on the frontlines to support and guide districts and schools with their SEL needs. You bring joy to this work.

    • Melissa Bloom, Executive Director, Evaluation and Strategic Partnerships
    • Claire Erwin, District Partnership Representative
    • Victoria Goodyear, Staff Developer
    • Gary Hess, Staff Developer
    • Jan Matthews, Staff Developer
    • Shawn Merriweather, Staff Developer
    • Rebeccah Potavin, Staff Developer
    • Susan Schilsky, Staff Developer
    • Lorie Spadafora, Staff Developer
    • Maria Thomas, Operations Manager, Evaluation and SEL
    • Gail Charles-Walters, Staff Developer

We would also like to extend our appreciation to our Research, Marketing, and Sales Teams who are extensions of our SEL team. We appreciate your support and shared commitment to our SEL vision. We cannot drive this essential work without you! Together, we are One LSI. We are LSI Family Strong!

 

About the Author

Camile Earle-Dennis
For over twenty years, Camile Earle-Dennis has served districts and schools as a teacher, literacy coach, district trainer, curriculum writer, national mentor, regional instructional coach, and leadership advisor. She is a nationally awarded Milken Educator and published author. She relies heavily on her cognitive sciences and instructional leadership backgrounds to empower leaders and their teams by aligning social emotional learning and the power of foundational relationships to transform, transcend, and further drive learning and teaching.

 

References

Amabile, T. & Kramer, S.J. (2011). The power of small wins. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2011/05/the-power-of-small-wins

Barnes, C.M. (2018). Sleep well, lead better. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr-org.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/hbr.org/amp/2018/09/sleep-well-lead-better

Berman, M.G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychol Sci. 19(12): 1207-12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19121124/

Dubois-Maahs, J. (2018). Why you should celebrate small wins. Talkspace. https://www.talkspace.com/blog/why-you-should-celebrate-small-wins/

Eliaz, I. (2020). Why stress management is so important for your health. Mind Body Green. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-2557/Why-Stress-Management-Is-So-Important-for-Your-Health.html

Habits for Wellbeing (n.d.). 20 ideas to nourish your life. https://www.habitsforwellbeing.com/ideas-to-nourish-your-life/

Keelan, P. (n.d.). The importance of tracking signs of healing from a traumatic event. https://drpatrickkeelan.com/anxiety/the-importance-of-tracking-signs-of-healing-from-a-traumatic-event/

Learning Forward (2020). SEL and equity. The Learning Professional 41(5). https://learningforward.org/journal/supporting-each-other/sel-and-equity/

Oracle and Workplace Intelligence (2020). As uncertainty remains, anxiety and stress reach a tipping point at work. https://www.oracle.com/a/ocom/docs/applications/hcm/2020-hcm-ai-at-work-study.pdf

Park, Y., Fritz, C., & Jex, S.M. (2011). Relationships between work-home segmentation and psychological detachment from work: the role of communication technology use at home. J Occup Health Psychol. 16(4): 457-67. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21728434/

Peterson, L.A. (2017). Decrease stress by using your breath. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/decrease-stress-by-using-your-breath/art-20267197?pg=2

Rampton, J. (2019). Science says healthy scheduling habits make people happier. Entrepreneur. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/333169

Rankin, L. (2013). 10 signs you have way too much cortisol. Mind Body Green. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-9527/10-signs-you-have-way-too-much-cortisol.html

Suni, E. (2020). How much sleep do we really need? SleepFoundation.org. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need

 

About LSI

Our vision for education is to close the achievement gap. Equip all students with the social, emotional, and cognitive skills they need to thrive in the 21st century. Expand equity by giving every child access to rigorous core instruction that empowers learners to free themselves from generational poverty.

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