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There’s Lots of Social-Emotional Support for Students, but Not for Teachers. Here Are Some Programs Looking to Change That

By Kate Stringer | November 7, 2017

(Photo credit: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

There may be only one profession that understands the complexity, stress, and challenges a classroom teacher faces every day, and that is the medical staff inside an emergency room during a natural disaster.

That’s an observation from education researcher Lee Shulman that rings a little too true for teachers and social-emotional scholars. Increased class sizes, student behavior problems, high-stakes testing, tight funding, and limited autonomy are just some of the stressors that place teachers in contention with nurses for the top spot for most stressful occupation.

Social-emotional learning programs for students are becoming more popular, and rightly so, as research points to gains in academics, graduation rates, and earnings. But what’s missing from these programs is support for the social-emotional needs of their teachers, who are experiencing stress and burnout. Research shows that if teacher needs aren’t addressed, students feel the impact.

“The whole idea of teacher well-being and that teachers’ social-emotional competences influence what they do in the classroom is relatively new, which is just mind-blowing,” said Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies social-emotional learning. “Of course teachers’ moods and well-being affect how they teach.”

Schonert-Reichl credits the beginning of an increased awareness for teacher well-being to 2009, when her research peers Patricia Jennings and Mark Greenberg wrote an article for the American Educational Research Association on the importance of supporting teacher social-emotional competence to create better learning environments and positive development in students.

Some teacher-support programs are emerging, but only a few have evidence behind them. One that does was developed by Jennings, an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and co-author of that article. It’s called CARE for Teachers, a mindfulness-based intervention program that has been used in about 200 schools. Jennings and several other researchers studied the program’s effectiveness in high-poverty New York City elementary schools using a cluster randomized trial.

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The program’s goal is to teach educators how to identify emotions like stress that occur during the school day and how to self-regulate. Teachers learned mindfulness practices like breath awareness, stretching, and compassion. The training included 30 hours of in-person sessions spread out over four months and several phone calls from coaches.

Published last month by the Journal of Education Psychology, the study found that CARE had positive effects on teachers’ ability to regulate their emotions. Additionally, it was the first study to show that a program designed specifically to help teachers’ social-emotional competencies had a positive impact on the classroom environment. This is important, as other research shows that when teachers are stressed or burned out, students don’t learn or behave as well.

Not only has Jennings seen her program help teachers calm down during moments of stress in the classroom, but she’s watched teachers practice compassion with their students. She recalled one educator who, after getting frustrated with a student for always being late, finally asked the first-grader what was going on. The student said she had been getting herself to school every day, without parental help. Knowing this helped the teacher regulate her emotional reaction to the student’s tardiness.

“Kids who are coming from homes where there’s a lot of poverty and violence and stress, having a teacher who is more tuned in to them, more caring, and more able to provide the social-emotional support they need may make a big difference,” Jennings said. “This might be an answer to the achievement gap.”

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Charlottesville, Virginia, third-grade teacher Lisa Shook participated in CARE after the district paid for its teachers to attend last summer. Shook said the classes helped her remember deep breathing in class and calm walking as she monitors her classroom and helps students with work. Shook has taught for 24 years and said she’s felt the demands on teachers increase over that time. Sometimes, even finding time during the day to use the bathroom can feel impossible.

“The job that I have to do is not a job for just one person … I have to teach [students] so many things in a really short period of time,” Shook said. “[CARE] helps to relieve stress and to put things in perspective and to help you remember what the important things are.”

SMART in Education is another mindfulness program for teachers, based in Boulder, Colorado, that was part of a randomized study, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology in 2013. In addition to reducing stress, the researchers found, the training helped teachers focus better, improve working memory, and cultivate self-compassion.

These courses take two hours per week after school for eight consecutive weeks. SMART Faculty Director Rona Wilensky recommends that teachers take these courses with at least some fellow staff members, so they are a part of a cohort that can support one another’s mindfulness practice after the sessions are done.

More research is needed for teacher well-being programs, Jennings said, and more support for professional development. When President Donald Trump’s budget proposed eliminating Title II funding for teacher training, Jennings wrote in an op-ed: “These proposed cuts are difficult to square with the consistent calls for school improvement.”

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But there might be hope still for the teacher well-being movement on a federal policy level. Reps. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Susan Davis of California, both Democrats, introduced the Teacher Health and Wellness Act in the House in May. If passed, the legislation would support further research on reducing teacher stress. “Before they can take care of our students, teachers must take care of themselves,” Ryan said in a press release. “Their important work can be mentally taxing, and having the tools available to manage these stresses is crucial to making sure our students are getting a first-rate education.”

As teachers receive social-emotional training, they become models to their students for healthy behaviors, researchers said. After all, it’s hard for students to learn skills to cope with stress or anger if the person teaching them is frazzled or unkind.

“These are relational skills,” Wilensky said. “If you don’t have them, you can’t teach them.”

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