Looking After Yourself
Working with children with severe behaviours is extremely challenging. The personal demands you will experience working with these difficult children are not to be underestimated; they are extremely stressful. In one of my books (see resources) I discussed the concept of toxic resilience. The idea is that to be successful in a highly demanding vocation you need top be resilient. Working with difficult students over time certainly qualifies as being a demanding job; it demands a high level of resilience. But, this resilience comes at a cost. The ability to keep fronting up to these children places you in a situation that has a high likelihood of producing constant elevated stress. This constant exposure has a significant negative impact on an individual’s personal health, a situation that is understated and largely unrecognized.
Resilience has been defined as the ability to display constant competence under high levels of stress and produce quality outcomes despite demanding conditions. This definition is now accepted for every age group. This has long been held as a strength especially in education. It has allowed us to keep going long after others would have given-up. This is a quality required when dealing with these kids. One of the prerequisites for success is to hang in with them long after they had expected you to give-up.
In earlier Newsletters (The Intricacy of Stress, June 19th 2017 and Anxiety 24th July 2017) we have discussed the biological consequences of elevated levels of stress particularly when those levels are maintained over a period of time. You must be aware that you are working in such an environment.
The following is just a brief outline of symptoms, causes and recovery techniques that you can use as some sort of guide to self-care around maintaining a healthy level of resilience in this very difficult job.
In the Newsletter we have discussed the healthy stress cycle, arousal with its flight/fight/freeze response, the discharge of the released energy and a return to rest. We have also discussed what happens if, before we return to our baseline homeostasis, we are again provoked to a level that produces another cycle and the cycle is incomplete. The level of confined stress is magnified. This build-up is gradual and, unless you are vigilant you will not realise you are becoming burned-out, a not so nice way of saying you are dangerously stressed. If this is happening you may notice changes to your physical and emotional wellbeing as well as changes in your behaviour. These are:
- Poor sleep
- Feeling very tired or exhausted all the time
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Changes in eating habits
- Low immunity, catch everything that is going about
- Feel like nothing matters
- Work is either extremely boring and worthless or it is overwhelming and you can’t cope
- Feel like a failure, you feel helpless or detached
- Your level of motivation has dropped
- You become cynical and start to criticize everything
- Become withdrawn
- Isolate yourself
Avoid responsibilities by missing, either taking excess sick leave or other forms of leave
Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkley was renowned for her work around occupational burnout. She has described five causes for burnout and these are:
1. Work Overload – People have too much work to do in their day or, they don’t have enough time to complete the work they are given or, they are not supplied with the resources to complete their work. In any modern public school all three conditions are the norm.
2. No Autonomy – When we are given a responsibility but not given the authority to make decisions about how that task should be done or the freedom to plan the work we become disempowered. This leads to frustration that can build to resentment.
3. Under Valued – As teachers we are always looking to provide our students with positive feedback when they complete a task. We understand that this sort of response helps them become motivated to carry on. Somehow this simple technique is ignored when we are dealing with our colleague or those we supervise. When we fail to provide positive feedback or some type of reward we feel under-valued or disrespected.
A particular problem you will face if you ‘specialise’ in dealing with these damaged kids is that the mainstream educational community has no real time for these children other than mouthed clichés when they make the headlines in the media. This discounting from the leadership send a message to colleagues that don’t work in this area that somehow your work is not important. This can be quite disappointing.
4. Not Supported in the Workplace – This leads on from the latter part of the previous point. However, when you are working with these very difficult kids there will be time, more than is usual when the students will have to be removed from their class. This is where the teacher requires the support of the rest of the school. These students must be removed for everyone’s safety, including their own but they must be supervised. There is nothing more demoralising than sending a student out and having them return almost immediately with little or no intervention being delivered.
5. Fairness – This is another point hat is underpinned by the understanding that you will be working with difficult kids. Shallow educators equate teaching quality with the attainment of high grades in their classrooms. This insult is carried on by the community and the media. There is little understanding of the difficult work you do on top of the delivery of curriculum which is the task of those teachers working in ‘selective’ environments. Everyone deserves respect especially those who work without minor extrinsic rewards.
6. The ‘Meaning’ of your Work – This is the final part of the causes that make working with these difficult kids a dangerous place to take on. You should not expect your colleagues or your supervisors to understand the value, not to mention the difficulty of the work you do. I worked for ten years as a principal of a special school for adolescents with severe behaviours in a very needing area in South-West Sydney. During that time, I had four supervisors all of whom were wonderful people but I know they had no idea and little interest in what we were doing at the school. This is where you need to believe in your understanding of the work you do and if possible, create alliances with contemporaries from nearby areas. These days you can contact similar colleagues ‘on-line’ one advantage of the digital world.
When discussing recovery let’s use the same three categories, physical, emotional and behaviour. In reality, these are really just the reverse of those things we have identified as the causes of stress.
- Physical – Lots of the things that have used to deal with your elevated stress have affected your health. It’s doing almost the opposite that will help you recapture your physical health. There are some simple things you can do:
- Get regular exercise. This doesn’t have to be excessive and really it needs to be ‘age appropriate’. Don’t develop an obsession with exercise, that is a symptom of activities addiction, that is exercising so you avoid the issue that is causing the stress. It might be jogging or walking the dog, anything that gets you out and about. Joining in a team activity would tick two of these boxes.
- Try meditation, follow the guidelines outlined for the students, they will be the same. It is also a good idea to take meditation or yoga classes to get out and meet others.
- Avoid drugs, this goes without saying. It is part of our western culture to reach for a drink when we are over worked and the thought of a stiff drink at the end of the week is tempting. Like all things, in moderation is a good guide.
- Emotional – When you are ‘burned-out’ you really do not feel good about yourself and you tend to isolate from others. Some simple ideas are:
- Reach out to those who are close to you. Your first though is probably they don’t want to hear about your problems but in most cases, you would be wrong. People are flattered when you seek them out. The very act of choosing to speak to them communicates that you trust them and value them. They will be supportive.
- Socialise both in your work and in the community. At work you are with people you probably would not choose to mix with unless you had to. But, you are with them during your working day and by trying to get to know them the consequential interactions are much more pleasant. Don’t be afraid to initiate the contact.
- Get your work into perspective especially when working with challenging kids. The modern demands on teachers is on outcomes and we can get swept up in the idiocy of this approach to education. All teachers know that learning outcomes depend on a range of factors with the teacher being one. Assess your value with the effort you put into your work.
- Behavioural – ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’ How often have we heard this cliché but for the most part it is true? These are some things to do:
- High achievers are reluctant to say no to any request but there are times when you should say just that. You have to maintain a proper life – work balance and that requires you to limit the demands placed on you. Get into the habit of leaving your work at work. I understand this has always been impossible for teachers, it still is but in dealing with that work you do take home make sure you make a timetable that includes an appropriate of non-work activities.
- Think about how you work and how you could improve the efficiency and/or effectiveness of your efforts. This may include delegation of some activities that really could be done by others. I had a process where, if I though some demand was trivial I would put it into a designated file and wait to see if the person who sent the directive followed-up their request (this is common practice for most teachers and principals). If the demand was repeated then I would complete the task. Of course, you need to know those things that must be done!
- Plan; this can be an overall strategy for the school year or term but if so you need to break this down into smaller goals such as what you want to achieve in the next month, or whatever you choose but it is great to have a lesson plan that includes what you need to do. When you have a plan, it takes away a lot of your stress.
The message is, look after yourself! There is a statement made in every life-saving course I have been to and that is, never jump into a river to save a child if you can’t swim. It is equally true that you can’t help damaged kids get better if you become ill yourself.