Try these tips to help staff members reduce stress and frustration
To take care of others, you have to first take care of yourself
When you're in the business of supporting other people, your needs are often relegated to last place. On top of the typical stresses many face in the current economy, early childhood professionals, service providers, and teachers carry the added weight of ever-increasing demands without ever enough time, resources, or training. No wonder you're stressed!
Experts have officially begun to recognize this phenomenon as counterproductive: How can you expect professionals to provide quality services to children and families when their own health and well-being are compromised? More and more attention is being given to the critical issue of stress management for professionals and staff.
Here, we bring you some pointers on how to reduce stress and frustration, from experts who understand the realities you face day in and day out. Though some are directed to particular fields, these insights apply to anyone focused on improving outcomes for others. We wish you a lighter load and greater peace of mind this holiday season.
Begin with a new frame of mind
Begin by following the advice of the authors of Relationship-Centered Practices in Early Childhood and find "the courage to be human." This guidebook urges professionals to remember that they cannot support others on a journey to personal empowerment without taking care of their own needs. Caring for one's own physical, emotional, and mental health is as important a job requirement as anything else in the job description.
Professionals and caregivers must look at what nourishes them and consciously build time in their life to engage in those activities. If they neglect to do so, they wil continually withdraw from their account of personal reserves without adding to it. When providers are in touch with their needs and take care of themselves, they model how healthy such behavior can be, for their own families, the children and families they serve, and also their colleagues.
Ensure the well-being of each staff member
Many professionals who work with young children and families struggle to provide the highest quality services while coping with the challenges of working with families and organizations bereft of resources. The new text Understanding Early Childhood Mental Health cites conditions that can lead to depression, chronic stress, and burnout among early childhood staff:
- inadequate training on the mental health needs of high-risk families
- muddy definitions of job success
- chronic financial insecurity from low wages, just like the families they serve (the mean hourly wage of a child care worker is $9.79 (U.S. Department of Labor, 2009), amounting to annual earnings of about $19,600, according to Preparing Teachers for the Early Childhood Classroom)
- excessive caseloads, overwhelming paperwork, and lack of a sense of job control
Because stress-related illness can lead to absenteeism, inability to perform job duties, and high turnover, reducing stress is a valuable goal. For yourself, or for staff members who work for you, consider these strategies recommended in Understanding Early Childhood Mental Health:
- Include training on stress-management in professional development activities. This can include training on how to care for yourself, including setting limits, focusing on self-goals, taking time out to meet your own needs, self-knowledge regarding stress levels, and giving psychological gifts to yourself (e.g., learning an avocation for restoration or enjoyment (such as learning how to create stained glass), or engaging in nonservice activities (like geocaching).
- Include on-the-job activities that promote physical and psychological well-being. Examples of physical activities include lunchtime exercise groups, walks or runs for causes relevant to program participants, and healthy eating and exercising campaigns and competitions among staff. Activities directed at mental health might include self-help book clubs, lunchtime films about characters who engage in psychological healing, and "mental exercise" groups that focus on problem-solving, goal setting, and self-care.
- Mental health consultants. Just as mental health consultants should be available for children and families, they should be available for addressing staff concerns and experiences that affect their work.
- Safety protocols. Programs that adhere to safety protocols show acknowledgment of the risks staff members face and their worth to the program. Programs should establish protocols for managing crisis situations that may be unsafe for staff and families, such as when children or parents become out of control or violent.
- "Mental health days." Creating a mechanism to provide staff with time off from the stress of direct work with children and families gives them a message about the importance of self-care and the willingness of the organization to promote their health. This can be accomplished through a formal leave policy or routine staff development days that focus on their mental health. In-house reflection meetings, visits to other programs, paperwork days, or self-care activities allow staff to perform work functions while being relieved from the stress of direct work with program participants.
- Peer support. Programs often underutilize this very important facet of staff support and development. Formal and informal mechanisms of peer support can be established in myriad ways, such as weekly conferences on children and families or staff buddies who can be consulted for questions regarding how to intervene with families or about agency employment processes.
- Concrete staff validation. Acknowledging staff effort and sharing examples of their expertise during staff meetings, in newsletters, and to funders demonstrates to staff that what they do is valued. It is often helpful to have a journal or box where staff can document their own or their peers' accomplishments, which can be compiled in an organizational record. In addition, an annual celebration could be held that has the singular goal of sharing staff achievement in a public forum.
- Retreats. Programs should conduct periodic "retreats" in which staff members have the opportunity to reflect on the work, get recharged, and reconnect with the overarching mission of the program. Ideally, such retreats should occur away from the physical location of the program in a peaceful, comfortable setting that encourages reflection and facilitates self-care. Accomplishments and challenges of the prevous service period should be reviewed, with an emphasis on staff ideas and contributions to improving the quality of service.
Use creative problem-solving
In The Paraprofessional's Handbook for Effective Support in the Inclusive Classrooms, Julie Causton-Theoharis reinforces the importance of stress-management for educators: Teachers who are not rested, healthy, and reasonably content will have difficulty helping their students. When stressful problems arise, she recommends teachers informally walk it out and talk it out, brainstorming with respected colleagues. If that fails to produce a workable solution, she recommends teachers systematically follow the step-by-step creative problem-solving (CPS) process:
Explore the problem
1. Fact findingDescribe what you know or perceive to be true about the challenge. Who? What? When? Where? How? What is true and not true about this problem?
2. Problem findingClarify the issue. View it in a different way. Finish this sentence: In what ways might we ... ?
3. Idea findingGenerate as many ideas as possible; defer judgment and reinforcement.
Prepare for Action
4. Solution findingCompare the ideas against some criteria that you create. How will you know whether your solution will work?
5. Acceptance findingCreate a step-by-step plan of action.
To see how CPS works, consider this problem faced by "Tom," which many teachers can relate to:
Tom was having a difficult time getting Trevor, a first-grade boy, off the playground at the end of recess. Trevor would run around and hide, and Tom could not reach him or get him to go inside. The end of recess was getting to be like a game of tag, except that Tom did not enjoy chasing Trevor around. Trevor would climb to the top of the slide, and if Tom came up, Trevor would slide down. If Tom went up the slide, Trevor would go down the monkey bars. This was almost humorous to watch unless you were Tom, who felt frustrated and embarrassed. Tom considered the communicative intent of the behavior and decided that Trevor was likely trying to communicate that he did not want to come in from recess. Knowing that information, however, did not help Tom identify what to do to get Trevor inside. He also knew that Trevor had a difficult time with transitions. Tom decided to talk to his team. They sat together and engaged in a CPS process.
In the end, Tom and his team came up with a constructive solution: Provide Trevor with a timer and ask him to identify a peer to help out. When the timer went off (with 2 minutes to spare), the boys would find each other and go line up together. Problem solved!
Build positive staff relations
Few things are more stressful for teachers than a strained relationship among the adults in the classroom. If there is dissension in the ranks, how can you move forward? Everyone needs to be on the same teamteacher, parents, and support personnelworking together with one goal in mind: the advancement and progress of the student. In The Special Educator's Toolkit, Cindy Golden suggests steps for building positive staff relations:
- Begin having classroom staff team meetings. These are not IEP meetingsthey are team meetings to build the rapport and skills of the classroom staff. Isn't it easier to tell something to a group than to have to keep repeating yourself to individuals? These meetings can be held during a planning period, before school, after school, or during students' physical education or lunch period. They do not have to be formal, but the meetings do need to be consistent, be organized, and serve a purpose. During the meetings, you can discuss:
- How things are going in the classroom
- Specific student issues, teaching interventions, or behavior interventions
- Communication issues between staff members
- Issues around the organization and management of the classroom
- Create a schedule of daily duties for each member of your staff. This alone may solve numerous issues, especially if teachers have several staff members serving in one classroom. Using a Staff Daily Duty Schedule will make the distribution of tasks less personal and will free up time for the teacher. Be creative in using this schedule as it could also be used to schedule services that students get during the day (such as speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy) or in a co-teaching situation.
- Create a classroom expectations booklet. Teachers can use three-ring binders to create a booklet for each staff member, or create just one to be used as a reference guide for the classroom. The booklets can include:
- Information about students' disabilities or learning difficulties
- Classroom staff expectations or job descriptions
- Information about specific teaching methods
- Resources about data collection and best practices
- Do special things for the staff. Time and money may be in short supply, but small things will go far in helping build camaraderie and rapport. Here are just a few ways to treat the staff and build relationships:
- Bring donuts or goodies in for breakfast
- Give a drink and snack on a break
- Cover a duty for them (lunch duty, busy duty, hall duty)
- Use a little note to say something positive about the work they do
- Praise them in front of the administrationthis goes miles in helping build confidence in their work
(Administrators have their own particular brand of stress, especially in turbulent times of change. For strategies on "Understanding and Overcoming Pitfalls" common to leaders, see this excerpt from The Leadership Equation: Strategies for Individuals Who Are Champions for Children, Youth, and Families.)
Some of these tips are more involved than others: Start with just one that will help you breathe a little easier. Then, as the holiday season progresses, remember to remind yourself that taking care of yourself is just as valuable as anything else you have to do.