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Significant attention has been given to the psychological well-being of children and youth during the COVID-19 pandemic and other pervasive stressors. The potential for increased stress or psychological trauma in young people is complicated by the unknowns of multiple societal challenges (e.g., a pandemic, racism, civil unrest), and, for some, individual histories of prior traumas.

Educators and staff members are susceptible to similar challenges. Unfortunately, care-for-the-caregiver and individual educator self-care strategies that support staff resilience are not often parts of a school’s culture. While self-care has risen to the level of an ethical responsibility among certain educator professional standards (e.g., school psychology), true implementation of a self-care culture in schools often remains elusive.

Chronic stress

A career in education has always been a challenge, but perhaps never more so than now. Educators have continued to meet academic standards while learning new technology skills on the fly and responding to an increased range of student needs. Crisis events that have a discrete beginning and end are challenging enough. However, ongoing events that involve numerous unknowns (e.g., a pandemic, systemic racism) can produce chronic stress.

Chronic stress causes the body to remain in a constant state of alertness, despite being in no immediate danger. It can lead to significant physical, psychological, and interpersonal challenges. Educator secondary traumatic stress is also common, occurring when an individual is frequently supporting the needs of others who are suffering during crises. It can be particularly harmful to caregivers when experiencing their own chronic stress or psychological trauma.

Warning signs

While every individual reacts differently to traumatic stress, it is important for all educators to be aware of common warning signs. For example, changes to physical well-being (e.g., abrupt changes to appetite, changes to sleep patterns, frequent headaches) and increased cognitive or emotional struggles (e.g., inability to stop thinking about an issue, significant irritability, chronic fatigue) reflect the potential for psychological trauma.

Personal and interpersonal changes also may occur in traumatized individuals. They may include decreased trust of others, hypervigilance, or increased cynicism. Staff members with histories of prior adverse experiences (e.g., personal loss, mental illness, lack of resources) are particularly vulnerable to psychological trauma during times of crisis.

Systemic approaches 

Self-care is a luxury and privilege that few educators experience fully, and it is often a burden left to individuals. Encouragement from others to “take care” may contribute to a positive school climate. However, it will not likely be sufficient in a strong care-for-the-caregiver culture. Systemic approaches include strategies that actively and deliberately enable individual self-care. The goal is to work toward a sustained care-for-the-caregiver school culture for all staff members, and not just something that is revisited during times of crisis or high stress.

As a start, school leaders must acknowledge the reality of chronic educator stress and how they often experience multiple stressors at one time. Building staff member well-being could involve simple actions such as creating a “shout out” wall of gratitude notes or holding regular administrator office hours. These can increase staff member perceptions of connectedness and promote a psychologically safe environment.

Moreover, school leaders must openly value staff member support-seeking as part of the school’s culture. Schools that build in peer support opportunities (e.g., teacher-peer pairing, “buddy” classrooms, adequate substitute pool) provide options for staff members to request support with less guilt and to increase perceptions of collaborative support. School districts are encouraged to consider providing Employee Assistant Programs, or similar supports, as well. These services can be valuable for staff members with trauma histories and/or who are experiencing chronic stress currently.

Finally, schools are encouraged to build in regular staff discussions about the development of their care-for-the-caregiver culture. Waiting until times of high stress or the day of a crisis to address such issues is unproductive at best and perhaps even harmful.

Individual approaches

With the recognition that self-care is a privilege not readily available to or viable for all, individual staff members are encouraged to reflect on options to advance their own well-being whenever possible. While some may think of self-care as being about occasionally engaging in indulgent behavior, it is best conceived as a practice of realistic and sustained healthy approaches.

For example, physical and emotional self-care can include seeking creative opportunities for rest or “brain breaks,” adjusting diet, and limiting the use of alcohol or other substances. Interpersonal self-care may involve taking time to appreciate others, engaging in spiritual or other calming activities, connecting with family or other social supports, or using humor. These approaches must not be difficult to access or drain time and resources. Rather, they must be sustainable options that support the needs of everyone.

To support the mental health of educators, schools must actively develop systematic options that help build a care-for-the-caregiver culture. Within that culture, educators are encouraged to reflect on sustainable options for personal self-care to address physical, emotional, and interpersonal well-being.

Scott A. Woitaszewski (scott.woitaszewski@uwrf.edu) is a professor and director of the school psychology program at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and a member of the National Association of School Psychologists’ School Safety and Crisis Response Committee.

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