This is difficult and important work we do, working as school counselors. The demands are high, time and resources are stretched thin, the nature of our work is often isolated from other adults, and far too often negativity is knocking at the door. Bad press, unpassed levies, ugly social media posts, angry parents, worn-out colleagues, and then there are the children themselves. Those with the most challenging behaviors, the most overwhelming needs, and the biggest histories of trauma and lack of support at home: these are our students. Nobody calls on us to say, “Hey, Johnny is focused, well-behaved, thriving academically and socially and is using all of the emotions management strategies you taught our class. Could he be in one of your groups?” Now, before you decide to take your ball and go home, let’s talk about how we can recommit to self-care practices and leverage some of the growing positive psychology research to help us stay in the game.
20 Positive Practices to Help You Stay in the Game
1. Eat lunch. No, really, do it. And while you are at it try to be healthy about it. Plan ahead so you can have something balanced and good for you. Staff rooms are notorious repositories for sugary indulgences and leftover sweets folks don’t want at their house anymore.
2. Exercise. Walk, run, hike, join a Zumba class, or sign up for tap dance lessons. Seriously, I did this with our Dean of Students and it was so fun! Find a physical activity that works for you. Try to build in some movement into your work day as well. Even a quick walk and fresh air on the way to pick up a student can do wonders for your energy levels.
3. Guard your sleep. Turn off screens early. Do not think about work before bedtime. Go to bed at a consistent time and make sure you get enough sleep.
4. Spend time outside. Research is discovering the importance of being immersed in nature. Take time to step outside on the playground and breathe in the gentle breeze, feel the warmth of sunshine on your face, or smell the clean scent of rain (I live near Seattle). On your time off, make it a priority to spend time outside, often.
5. Care for your emotions. Counselors have feelings too! That’s okay! Validate how you are feeling and then be deliberate in taking care of yourself. Find a friend to talk to without violating confidentiality and then move forward without dwelling on the difficult feelings we are exposed to in our work with children exposed to trauma.
6. Grow boundaries. Leave it at the office. Don’t think about work at home. For me, when I think about students at home they take up residence. I’d rather work late and then walk away. Say no to involvements that do not bring you joy or add to your work in meaningful ways.
7. Make time for mindfulness. Build in quiet breaks during the day. Slow down and be present in the moment, even for a few minutes. In the busyness of teaching children to calm down, we need to do the same to take care of ourselves. Breathe, relax, and slow your own mind down.
8. Revamp your self-talk. Are you worrying about the students? Hope for good things for our little ones in distress and then leave them at work. Remind yourself, “I didn’t cause it. I will unlikely see the full impact of my good work, but I have chosen to make myself available to help.” Are you overwhelmed? Rehearse, “One step at a time. I’ve got this!”
9. Nurture positive thoughts and foster gratitude. What is something you are looking forward to? What is one good thing that happened in the day? Focus on that! Create a gratitude journal: What are you grateful for? In your personal life? What joy or meaningful interaction did you help create? What evidences of success can you write about, even a tiny break-through? I have students on a daily check-ins who write in a happy thoughts journal. I have my own gratitude journal that I write in along with them!
10. Phone a friend. Invest in your social support networks and build relationships in and outside of work. Sometimes, we just need a friend.
11. Be encouraged by being an encourager. Send an affirming email to someone at work. Write a thank you note. Avoid negative talk. Do not get sucked in but, rather, be an agent of change by saying something kind or even acknowledging your self-care by saying you are trying to be positive when others try to engage you in negativity.
12. Exercise your creativity. Add value by exercising a personal strength. Do you have a hobby or something you like to do? Photography? Crafting? Exercising creativity at work and outside of work can help you renew.
13. Develop a growth mindset. Learn, stretch, and grow. You will make mistakes and that is okay, remember, that is what helps us learn. Continue to grow your program. Add, delete, edit. Keep developing your craft and seeking new and better resources and ways to do this work. Reading new research, finding new books, and being active on counseling social media sites, keeps me excited about all the new and important ways our collective field is growing!
14. Power down. Manage your availability and information access to improve your happiness and effectiveness. Schedule time to return calls and answer emails but try to avoid cramming them in at lunch or between students. Constant connectivity to our email, phones, and social media can mean we literally don’t get a break. That’s not good for anybody!
15. Get Organized. Find an organization system and stick to it. Personally, the more stressed I feel, the less organized I tend to become. Anyone else feel oppressed by too many post-it notes? Currently, I have a journal in which to write all my student and meeting notes, to-do lists, and track phone calls. Everything goes in the journal or on the Google calendar.
16. Utilize data to prioritize your efforts. Data can help generate support for your program, identify the activities that make the biggest impact, and helps you to know where your energy is paying off. This step is a work in progress for me.
17. Set goals. Identify small manageable goals and build from there. When you cannot do it all, my philosophy is, “Do the worst first.” Whatever task causes the most stress or has the biggest impact for the least effort, start there. You cannot build a Comprehensive Guidance Program overnight, after all.
18. Create a positive space. Consider how you can create calm in your physical space. Play soothing music, add natural or non-fluorescent lighting, decorate with calming colors, hang pictures and positive sayings. Spend time creating a space you enjoy, no matter how small it is.
19. Embrace change. If you find that even with the best of self-care and advocating for your program, you truly are in an oppressive work situation, do not be afraid to move on. I have found the occasional shift of positions in my career to be both difficult and rewarding. In the end, the moves have exposed me to new challenges, created opportunities to look at my work in fresh ways, afforded me new, meaningful relationships, and equipped me with new tools for my work.
20. Share your ideas. We all have something to share: a lesson that went well, a craft the kids enjoyed, a calm down corner we created. Let others know about it! One of the ways I find the most encouragement for my work is when I share something that helps other school counselors in their work. Build in show and tell time when you meet with your district teams, share a new book at a staff meeting, organize a Social Emotional Learning professional development opportunity along with other counselors in your district, or share your ideas on school counselor social media sites. We can all use fresh inspiration and contributing builds our own confidence.
Thank you for investing in the lives of children. Adding healthy self-care practices into your daily routines will boost your ability to keep up the good work. Okay, put me in coach, I’m ready to play! GAME ON!
Rebecca Bowen, M.Ed. is a full-time school counselor in Washington state and the author of My Incredible Talking Body: Learning to Be Calm, a picture book that teaches emotional regulation and provides parents and educators with strategies to support the children in their lives.
Research and Inspiration
Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. New York: Broadway Books.
Bernstein, E. E., & McNally, R. J. (2017). Acute aerobic exercise helps overcome emotion regulation deficits. Cognition and Emotion, 31(4), 834-843.
Dweck, C. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Top-notch research reveals the upward spiral that will change your life. New York: Three Rivers Press.