For educators, tapping into SEL practices is an act of self-appreciation

Updated: Jan 20


Abstract illustration showing a child watering a flower inside an individual's mind.

Educators, school leaders, parents, paraprofessionals, school counselors, school social workers, substitute teachers – no matter the role, all adults in young children’s lives have been experiencing anxiety, stress, uncertainty, and even grief in ways we never could have imagined two years ago. At this stage of Covid-19, “burnout” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Having to constantly pivot to contend with school closures, overwhelmed families, anxious kids, staff shortages, dysfunctional tech, and above all, the constant worry about getting sick, is taking a huge toll on the adults in the room. For many educators the constant fear of letting others down can compete with the priority of maintaining personal mental health and wellness. And early childhood educators, in particular, face the very real threat of daily potential exposure to COVID as our littlest ones are not yet vaccinated. It’s a lot.

At ParentCorps, we’re heartened to see that the events of the past two years have turned a spotlight on childrens’ mental health and social-emotional learning like never before. In early childhood classrooms, we’re seeing that critical investment in social-emotional learning is helping children process their emotions during a very emotional time.

But what are we doing for adults, particularly the educators? Our educational system imposes an ever-changing list of expectations that are often impossible to meet, even more so in times of crisis. And yet at the same time, many educators feel like they are not doing “enough.” It’s a double-bind that can be crushing, even for the most skilled and seasoned in our field.


Our educational system imposes an ever-changing list of expectations that are often impossible to meet, even more so in times of crisis. And yet at the same time, many educators feel like they are not doing “enough.” It’s a double-bind that can be crushing, even for the most skilled and seasoned in our field.

To put it simply, educators’ own social-emotional well-being is critical. It’s critical for showing up for kids, for creating and sustaining emotionally responsive classrooms, for building strong and healthy relationships with students’ families – and most of all, it’s critical for our own survival. But for many of us, awareness of our own mental health and wellness is relegated to the back burner, for when we can “get to it.”


This topic is front and center in the new study “Silent Expectations: An exploration of women pre-Kindergarten teachers’ mental health and wellness during Covid-19 and beyond,” led by our colleague at the Center for Early Childhood Health & Development, assistant professor Dr. Vanessa Rodriguez, Ed.D. This qualitative study found that, though pre-K teachers are often considered SEL experts, teachers consistently struggled to explain how they actualize supporting their own SEL.


For instance, when Anne, a pre-K teacher, was asked whether she knew how to support her own teacher SEL, she asked, “You mean for me, or for the kids?” and the following exchange ensued:

Interviewer: No. For you, for you, just you.


Anne: Oh, for me to help me…I know a lot of things logically and how they should be. But again, I don't know. I don't know what to say to that one.


Interviewer: Ok, so you know logically that's it's important. But do you know how to do it?


Anne: Yeah. Do I know how to do it? I guess. Well, I'm not so good at it. So maybe I don't know how to do it.


“Their stories show a range of awareness,” Dr. Rodriguez and co-authors write of their findings. “Some are completely unaware that they were suffering, others jokingly dismissed the pain endured or damage done. In more extreme situations, teachers described PTSD, depression, and suicide.”


Developing and practicing our own social-emotional learning practices – like fostering awareness of our emotions, noticing our mind-body connections, understanding how our many identities factor into how we process our own stress, grief and anxiety – may be fairly new territory for some of us. To be clear, it can’t just fall “on us.” Supporting educator mental health and wellness is a complicated systemic issue that can’t be reduced to individual acts of what we often refer to as “self-care.” Dr. Rodriguez reminds us that supporting adult SEL in education is a system responsibility with critical implications for future research, policy and practice.


That said, when we invest any time in developing awareness around our own wellness, capacity and resilience, that is time well spent. At ParentCorps, we believe building simple exercises into our wellness practice can help us refocus, reflect, and craft a healthy narrative for ourselves that embraces compassion for the self. Adult SEL practices can act as a first line of defense and help us build awareness of when we need to reach out for more support. We all take the time to brush our teeth and floss (well, most of the time). Shouldn’t checking in with our emotions be part of our routine?


To this end, as the new calendar year unfolds, we encourage you to download and use our Path to Self-Affirmation tool, available on our website. You can complete it, on paper or just in your head, whenever it feels right. Or, as an act of community care, you can use this tool in partnership with a trusted colleague or loved one. Affirming each other can be a radical act of kindness and support!


Head over to Tools to download A Path to Self-Affirmation and remind yourself that the way we speak to ourselves matters.


Lisa Ellrodt is a ParentCorps Educator, and former early childhood social worker.

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