Avoiding Burnout: Self-Care Strategies for Teachers

Avoiding Burnout: Self-Care Strategies for Teachers

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Working in a highly stressful teaching environment? That's going to take its toll on your mental and physical health. Stress is like a warning signal from our body telling us that something isn't quite right.

In this episode of School Behaviour Secrets, we discuss the negative effects exposure to long term stress can have on your body and mind and we reveal our most effective strategies for managing and reducing stress.

Important links:

The Health Fix by Dr. Ayan Panja The Health Fix

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Show notes / transcription

Simon Currigan  0:00  

If you're listening to this and you're working with lots of high needs pupils and you're thinking, well, that doesn't affect me, then you're wrong. Even if you're not anxious or depressed, it's likely you're spending so much time in a heightened emotional state yourself that you've forgotten what it feels like to be truly calm and relaxed. 

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to another episode of school behaviour secrets. Our aim for this podcast is to do for SEMH what Liz Truss did for the British economy. Only good things right? I'm joined here today by my co host Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma. 

Emma Shackleton  1:14  

Hi, Simon.

I had to think about who Liz Truss was, so fleeting was their impact

Simon Currigan  1:20  

A bad flashback? Emma. I've got a question. I'd like to ask you today before we get into the meat of the show. 

Emma Shackleton  1:26  


Simon Currigan  1:27  

According to a 2018 survey by the Mental Health Foundation, so that's pre pandemic, what did 49% of 18 to 24 year olds say caused them to experience high levels of stress?

Emma Shackleton  1:40  

Okay, a couple of guesses. I would say maybe exams, peer pressure. So you know, pressure to fit in maybe something around unrealistic expectations portrayed by social media?

Simon Currigan  1:53  

Yeah, absolutely. That last one was absolutely nailed it. The answer was comparing themselves to others. And I'm guessing social media has a big part to play in that, you know, with people putting up the best parts of their lives on social media, their highlight reel, which is all kind of fake. And when people look at that, they compare the worst or average parts of their lives to that highlight reel, which makes them feel bad or sad. So for bonus points, what did 12% of people of any age say caused them high stress? 

Emma Shackleton  2:24  

Money worries? 

Simon Currigan  2:26  

No, I'm sure they did have money worries, but it was feeling under pressure to respond instantly to instant messages.

Emma Shackleton  2:32  

Ah, okay, that makes sense. What's the link to today's episode?

Simon Currigan  2:36  

Today we're going to be talking about how we as teachers, or teaching staff or adults in school, or anyone who works with kids can take care of ourselves and manage our stress levels. So we remain healthy and can help the kids.

Emma Shackleton  2:50  

This topic is so important because if we feel burned out or live in a constant state of stress, then we as the adults just aren't going to be in a physical state to look after the kids that we're responsible for. However, before we jump into that discussion, I'd like to start by asking a quick favour of our listeners. If you're enjoying the show or finding it useful, please leave us an honest rating and review on your podcast app right now. This will tell the algorithm to share the show with more listeners just like you and then we can reach more teachers, children and parents. Thank you.

Simon Currigan  3:28  

Perfect. That said it means it's time to grab the dry shampoo, step into the cage and comb the back hair of the unruly orangutan we call behaviour.

Emma Shackleton  3:39  

Okay then. So why are we talking about this, quite rightly, there's a lot of talk about moving away from the term challenging behaviour more towards looking at what's causing children's underlying social, emotional and mental health needs. And high behaviour is a result of those needs not being addressed in some way. I think we've all heard by now that all behaviour is communication. So rather than labelling the behaviour as challenging, or worse, labelling the child as challenging. It's more important to peel back the layers and look at what's causing those behaviours, even though the behaviour of course might be challenging to us, if that makes sense. Let me give you an example of someone who has a sensory processing difficulty for example, let's imagine that they are hypersensitive to noise, meaning that for them noises feel amplified, loud, intrusive and scary. So at school, they might feel overwhelmed by the noises and signs of the classroom. On a daily basis, they are likely to be experiencing a high volume of stress just by being in an environment where there are lots of different and unpredictable sounds such as people talking or coughing, chairs scraping on the floor, bells ringing, kids laughing that kind of thing. Over time, the stress of receiving this sensory input becomes overwhelming. And at some point, they just can't regulate anymore. And they explode. The explosive behaviour might look different from child to child, but you get the idea. Now, we could start by shouting at that child or telling them off for their explosive behaviour. But I think most people understand that their behaviour is driven by the way that that young person feels. And this is a much more empathetic and needs led approach, all good. And then there's even a growing move away now from using the term challenging behaviour to behaviour that challenges because actually, the challenge is for us as the adults and the others around them to understand and support the young person to cope, rather than for the child to be viewed as challenging or difficult, which implies that they are being malicious or naughty even.

Simon Currigan  6:06  

But here's the thing, if you're an adult, and you've just been working with a child who's become overwhelmed and punched you in the stomach, say or they've spat at you in the face, or they're thrown a chair at you, or you've just been in the corridor, and you've had a 16 year old, absolutely yelling at you. But the thing is, you're a human being and your body is going to react as if it's under attack at a biological level. And you can know, at a logical level, that this isn't personal, that the child's behaviour is about an unmet need, and that the child would be directing this behaviour at any adult who happened to be standing in the front of the room, it's not about you personally, the thing is, right, your biology is going to react as if this is a personal attack against you, the ancient part of your brain, your amygdala isn't going to care about the niceties and logical nuances of challenging behaviour versus behaviour that challenges. You're gonna have a biological reaction to that behaviour, emotionally, a punch in the face is a punch in the face, whatever is driving the behaviour, and that is going to kick off your body's stress response.

Emma Shackleton  7:22  

That's right. So just like the kids, first of all, you get a hit of adrenaline. And that moves your body from relaxed to a heightened emotional state, where you're going to be completely focused on the now and less able to think logically, then if the situation continues, or you're unable to get away from that situation, your body's ancient biology will continue to pump out stress chemicals to move you towards fight flight or freeze, which is a bad place to be. If you're put in this position regularly enough, something interesting happens. Instead of reacting with high doses of adrenaline, which is most strongly linked to the short term stress response, your body starts to pump out more cortisol, which is linked to the long term stress response. And this is bad. It's like you're stuck in a perpetual emotional state where you feel under attack.

Simon Currigan  8:21  

Yeah, long term cortisol exposure is really bad. And it does a range of things. One of the things it does is turn off lots of important bodily functions. And as a result, you can get an increased risk of many health problems. Things like anxiety, digestion issues, sleep problems, weight gain, depression, heart disease, and more can be the result of long term cortisol exposure. They can also dampen down your body's immune response, which means you're much more likely to go down with every day diseases, coughs, cold viruses, that sort of thing. People who experience long term cortisol in their bloodstream, are also much more likely to ruminate. That's when you churn over problems and incidents from the past. Or you might get stuck on things that you're worried about in the future, you're much more likely to magnify things where you take a small issue and blow it up into a big one, driving even more stress. And cortisol drives the feeling of helplessness, like you're a victim, and there's nothing you can do. And if you're listening to this, and you're working with lots of high needs pupils and you're thinking, well, that doesn't affect me, then you're wrong. Even if you're not anxious or depressed. It's likely you're spending so much time in a heightened emotional state yourself that you've forgotten what it feels like to be truly calm and relaxed. You can actually become addicted to the high the adrenaline gives you without realising it. I know when I worked in a pupil referral unit teaching permanently excluded children day after day after day, hour, after hour after hour, actually, you could be dealing with very emotionally heightened young people, you had to try and keep your cool, you're under constant pressure. And it wasn't until I left that job that I realised when all that kind of stimulus had gone away, I was in a calmer environment, you know, I was just walking around at home or doing work advising in schools, that I realised that I had been living on an adrenaline high. Without it, it felt weird not to be constantly exposed to these kind of heightened emotional situations. And it took a good two or three or four months for me, actually, for my body to adjust to not having that adrenaline in my system.

Emma Shackleton  10:39  

Absolutely. So for those of you that don't know, Simon, and I worked together in pupil referral units, and that's certainly a situation I can identify with, too, you know, following a good 15 years of good times, and tough times. The first thing I noticed after leaving that environment was feeling much, much calmer, and less on edge not having to be on high alert all the time. And I remember in the first few months, pretty much every day people would say to me, you look really well. And I'm certain that that was a result of leaving that high stress environment. And before we go on to talk about self care, here are some important statistics. These are from a study funded by the Nuffield Foundation, they found in the 1990s, only 1% of teachers said that they experienced a long lasting mental health problem. That's one that last 12 months or more. That figure now is closer to 5%. And another study found 10% of teachers were taking antidepressants. Now, that's not necessarily all related to behaviour. But it does help to indicate how important it is that we exercise self care. 

So let's have a think about what self care means and move on to looking at strategies. The first one we're going to talk about is mindfulness. Mindfulness is where we focus on the current moment. Rather than thinking about the past or thinking about the future, we connect to what's happening right now. Usually, this is where you are thinking about your breath, or the way that you're walking, or savouring the food that you're eating. You might have heard us talk about the research on the benefits of mindfulness for kids. Have a look back to Episode 64, which is called does mindfulness help kids manage their emotions if you're interested in finding out more information? Well, there's a lot of high quality research backed evidence that mindfulness for adults is an excellent way of managing stress and unhelpful thoughts and dampening down that stress response. Some studies have actually found that mindfulness training can lower your blood pressure and strengthen your immune system. So really simple mindfulness practice is just taking a moment at any point in the day, you don't have to be lying down or sitting cross legged on a cushion or burning a joss stick or anything like that.

Simon Currigan  13:12  

You don't need spa music for this?

Emma Shackleton  13:13  

If spa music is your thing, then go ahead and put spa music on. But some people really dismiss mindfulness. And they think all you know, it's all a bit mumbo jumbo, but it is science backed. And all you've got to do to engage in mindfulness is simply take a moment, stop what you're doing, be comfortable sitting or standing or lying down, it's up to you, you don't have to make a big deal. You can do it at your desk, if you want to. Maybe close your eyes if you feel comfortable to do that. And just observe your breath. Just take note of your breathing, coming in and going out and try to screen out everything else and just focus on that one specific thing. Breathing's often dismissed. It sounds really simple. But when we do it properly, it's really really effective.

Simon Currigan  14:07  

Yeah, it really brings your mind into the now doesn't it? I read a book called the health risks by Dr. Am Pangea. He's also got a podcast called Saving lives in slow motion, I'll put a direct link to the book in the show notes. Some people say they don't have time to sit down and do 10 or 15 minutes mindfulness every day. But he talks about a one minute recharge, which is similar to a mindfulness practice that I've actually found really powerful in my own life because we're often going from school to school to school or to appointment to appointment to appointment, and it can be quite stressful and you're rushing around. And the one minute recharge he recommends is when you have a transition point. So maybe you're in the car, you've just finished work and you're about to go home and cook the tea or something for the kids. instead of rushing straight to that transition. You just sit in the car and you sit for one minute. You're not allowed to look at your phone. You're not allowed to put the radio on all you can do for 60 seconds. He's just sit and be alone with your thoughts, you don't even have to think about your breath. And that pause for 60 seconds before you move on to the next thing I've personally found, it's actually a really easy way really accessible way of being able to bring my emotions and my sense of stress down without having to devote 10, 15 minutes to a mindfulness practice. So that's a one minute recharge that might be helpful. There are also lots of apps that can help you with this. Now, apps like headspace and calm, they can give you a guided mindfulness exercise, and help you build a regular mindfulness practice. And I should say, here, actually, Emma, we're not coming at this from a pedestal saying that we are doing all of the things that we're going to speak about today. And we're all living this perfectly serene life. The aim of the episode is to look at things that have been proven to help people with their stress levels. We're not sort of preaching from an ivory tower here, are we?

Emma Shackleton  15:53  

Absolutely not. No, no, no, we're just sharing the information with you. And then as always, it's up to you what you take away from it.

Simon Currigan  15:59  

So that's mindfulness. The next thing we're going to look at is exercise, we started to talk about if you're in positions where you're dealing with children who are in heightened emotional states, or maybe there are you're working with classes where the classroom management is really difficult and you personally feel under attack, the thing is, with human beings is they don't have an easy way of getting rid of stress chemicals. So some prey animals. If you watch Natural History programmes like David Attenborough and stuff like that, you'll see the scenes where maybe you got an antelope and it's being chased by a lion, the antelope runs as fast as it can, and it escapes the lion, you'll see it afterwards have this what's called a shake response. So it literally shudders its whole body. And this is its way of flushing adrenaline and cortisol from its system. Because those chemicals are really designed to help you deal with a short term danger, like you know, Lion chasing your life or death response. Now, it's much harder for humans to do this, we don't have a shake response for instantly getting rid of those chemicals, the main method adults tend to use in the modern world is to wait for our stress levels to slowly go down. And this is unhealthy, because then the stress chemicals are there. They're draining, they're draining slowly, and they're sort of sloshing around our bloodstream for a long time. So there are different methods as humans that we can access to deal with those stress chemicals. But because of the the modern world, what we often do is sit around with them in our system, and then we get home, we artificially relax with a boxset on Netflix, or we numb our brains with chemicals like alcohol, again, not good. Although if you do want to numb your brain with a boxset on Netflix, I do recommend Ozarks, that's my personal recommendation. 

Emma Shackleton  15:59  

I wholeheartedly agree with the Ozarks recommendation and I did think you were gonna say box of chocolates at that point. Or another alternative is that we can exercise. So exercise helps us to get rid of those chemicals in a productive, proactive, healthy way. Think about it, those stress chemicals are there to help us cope with what our body perceives to be a life threatening fight or flight situation. In those situations, the body is looking for a physical response, we become full of tension like a coiled spring, that energy has got to go somewhere. If we keep the spring under pressure, it's unhealthy. So Exercise and Movement are great ways of releasing that energy. I think I've always instinctively known this even before I understood the science behind it. I'm lucky to have been brought up with a physically active mom, who's always been passionate about sports and who actively encouraged me and my brother to be active as well. And I know that to feel okay, mentally, I need to exercise regularly. But of course, we're all different if you don't really like exercising, so that could be as little as a 10 minute brisk walk where we literally pace those chemicals out of our system. And that also gives you the benefits of changing location, which helps the body to relax. Because we've moved away from where the perceived threats happen.

Simon Currigan  17:47  

It could also be regular exercise at the gym, whether that's cardio exercise or resistance exercise. Both have been shown to have great health benefits and help damp down the body's stress response. You can also get lots of on demand streaming services now, like Beachbody on demand or Les Mills that let you exercise in the comfort of your own home if you can't be bothered to go to the gym. The evidence around exercise is really impressive. One study reported in nature showed an eight week resistance training programme significantly reduced anxiety symptoms in a large group of young adults. And the studies on the benefits of exercise on stress. Go on and on and on. If that's not your thing, you could go for something like yoga that involves a combination of stretching, putting parts of your body under pressure, and then releasing them. And having a mindful focus on your balance. But it could even involve something like dancing, if that's your thing. If you like, put on some music, or use video games, like let's dance, or use formal exercise programmes that use dance moves to increase your heart rate, whatever you pick, do something that's fun, and that you enjoy, so you stick with it. The aim is to enjoy and benefit from the stress buffering impacts of movement, and increased heart rate, whatever you pick, building some exercise into your routine is an essential part of self care, and stress management.

Emma Shackleton  20:47  

And finally, we're going to talk about social connection. We are all social animals, like wolves, monkeys, or naked mole rats. It's on Wikipedia! it's deep within our genes. As humans, we can't survive outside the pack. 50,000 years ago, being thrown out of the group was as bad as being given a death sentence, you simply wouldn't have been able to survive on your own. But here's the thing, when many of us are put under pressure or under stress, we do something interesting. We actually tend to isolate ourselves from the group, we tend to cancel plans, we move away from social connection. And the result is this actually increases our stress response. Because our bodies now recognise we have to look after ourselves more. Because we don't feel part of a group that's going to be taking a shared responsibility for our safety, which means we're on high alert for longer stretches of the day.

Simon Currigan  21:51  

Researcher Shawn Achor in his book, The Happiness Advantage, described a really interesting study with university students and he was sort of looking at how students reacted in the pressured run up to exams. And he would find that some would often pull away from their family and friends that isolate themselves that start skipping meals, they'd shut themselves away in their rooms away from their peers. And these students were often the ones who ended up crashing and burning and ending up with significant mental health difficulties. It was actually the ones who sought connection with their peers when they're under pressure, and studied in groups who coped best with the run up to the exams. According to Achor study after study has found that social relationships are one of the best predictors of well being and being buffered against stress. Another interesting study published in Health Psychology found that social support is a reliable predictor of heart health, that actually has a measurable impact on blood pressure. As in your blood pressure is more healthy if you have strong social connections which you actively keep up. And recent studies have shown an interesting cause and effect link. We've known for years that people who experience high stress levels, high adrenaline, high cortisol, you know, the people who are more likely to develop anxiety or depression, often disengage socially. And for a long time, we've assumed that it was the anxiety or the depression that resulted in the social withdrawal. But new studies are showing that it might be the other way around. When people experience stress, they begin to withdraw from their family and friends. And that compounds the issue and results in more complex mental health needs. This is an area where more research is going on. But the effect is clear. Social isolation is not good for coping with stress or your mental health.

Emma Shackleton  23:50  

So what you're saying here Simon is don't let it get that far. If you feel under pressure, don't distance yourself from the group. Try to integrate with people timetable in appointments with your friends and family. Even if you don't really feel like it, make it happen. Even when it feels like the very last thing you want to do. Nine times out of 10 You will feel better for connecting. Even if you only commit yourself to a short burst, say going along for a 20 minute coffee with a friend for example. And when you're there with your friend or your family, try your hardest to be present and in the moment actually be there and benefit from that connection to the people around you. Share your problems because communicating issues you're having can really lighten the load. And the aim isn't necessarily to get any solutions, but just to articulate the pressures you're facing, and then listen to others in turn, and if the issues you're facing are really complex, please do get professional support or counselling. If you can afford to. You can get in counselling on the NHS is very difficult right now. But there are affordable face to face counselling options and apps like better help, that can help you talk to a counsellor over a zoom like interface, or just message a professional. If that makes you feel more comfortable. However you do it planning social connection as part of your calendar. Teaching is like a marathon, not a sprint. And it can be one of the most physically and mentally demanding jobs, it's vital that you look after your physical and emotional health. After all, they say you can't pour from an empty cup.

Simon Currigan  25:38  

So those are our strategies and tips for teacher self care. We're not saying that we do all of the things that we've spoken about. But these are evidence based ways of managing stress successfully. And the first thing to do is recognise when you're hitting or long term periods of stress. And then make a choice intentionally take action. Because all those stress chemicals in the long term are bad for your body.

Emma Shackleton  26:02  

You could develop a programme of mindfulness, whether it's just a one minute practice during the transition points in the day, like Simon spoke about, or a guided meditation practice through an app or mindfulness class.

Simon Currigan  26:16  

Exercise, or just move your body regularly. This helps dissipate the stress chemicals for loading through your system. But make sure you do something that's fun, and that you enjoy. So you keep it up.

Emma Shackleton  26:27  

And don't forget to seek and keep social connection. It's been proven to buffer the impact of stress. So try not to isolate yourself from the group when the going gets tough, make time for connection and relationships and talk. And if you're looking for a way of making your teaching less stressful, see what I did there, then I've got the perfect free download for you. It's called the classroom management score sheet. And inside that score sheet, you'll find a list of 37 factors that have a real impact on classroom behaviour.

Simon Currigan  27:00  

The score sheet has a list of things that you're objectively doing or not doing to promote positive classroom behaviour. Think of it as a clear roadmap to improving your presence in the classroom, and reducing the stress of teaching.

Emma Shackleton  27:12  

And this resource is based on 1000s of observations that Simon and I have conducted between us. So you know, it's based on sound classroom practice.

Simon Currigan  27:22  

And if you're supporting a colleague with their classroom management, it can help make your feedback and action points even more clear and objective.

Emma Shackleton  27:29  

Get it now by going to beaconschoolsupport.co.uk. clicking on the free resources option in the menu, and you'll find it near the top of the page. It's completely free. Get it today. We've also put a direct link to the score sheet in the episode description.

Simon Currigan  27:46  

And while you've got your podcast app open, don't forget to hit the subscribe button so your app automatically downloads each and every episode of the school behaviour secrets podcast as it's released, so you never miss a thing. Subscribing will make you feel like a penguin that's just discovered central heating. It will blow your mind

Emma Shackleton  28:06  

Until the next episode of school behaviour secrets. I wish you a stress free week and don't forget to rota in time for your self care. Even if it's just the one minute refresh. Looking forward to seeing you next time. Take care, bye for now.

Simon Currigan  28:21  


(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)