Filling your emotional cup: The case for educator self-care

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Written By: Victoria Gibbs, Psychologist, Carers Connection

Early childhood educators have a lot of tasks and expectations to focus on throughout the day (understatement of the century). Not only do they need to be constantly aware of the needs of the children at their centre, which include anything from their emotional needs, play, learning, toileting, or behaviour management, educators also have the added pressure of constant paper work, adhering to health and safety procedures, programming, relating to colleagues, managing expectations of parents, assessment and rating, and the list goes on.

Ashleigh, an ECT from Goodstart Early Learning, says "As a teacher, our minds are always thinking about 'What will we be doing tomorrow? What activity could I do to extend the child's learning?' It is important that educators understand when to stop thinking about work". Like many educators, Ashleigh can certainly relate to how hard it can be to truly 'switch off' at the end of the day.

Although there are many rewards in working with children, research shows that the demands of working in the early childhood education field often become overwhelming, leaving even the most dedicated and enthusiastic educators at risk of burnout (Putting Children First Magazine, 2008).

"One thing you will find is passionate educators always put the needs of the children before their own" states Nicole, a Centre Director from Goodstart Early Learning.

"Our jobs don't finish after our shifts end, there is always planning and preparation that needs to be done. We need to find better ways of balancing the legislative requirements whist providing quality care and educational learning opportunities for the children."

Nicole reflects honestly that "I am a huge advocate for educators ensuring they look after themselves, [to achieve] a work life balance. I myself need to learn to put this into practice more."

Burnout is more than just feeling stressed. Burnout has been defined as a "state of mental and/or physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress" (Girdin, Everly, & Dusek,1996).

Burnout has then been further categorised into three dimensions: physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency (Maslach, 2003). This is not where any early childhood educator wants to end up – feeling exhausted, cynical and distant toward their role as an educator, and being ineffective at work. But, what can be done? How can educators cope with the pressures and demands of their role, and avoid ending up in a state of burnout?

The answer is surprisingly simple – self-care. Prioritising and practicing self-care as an educator is foundational to effective practice, and yet it can often be overlooked or misunderstood.

So, what exactly is self-care? While stress management refers to more reactive strategies, that is, coping with how we feel once we are already experiencing stress, self-care is much more of a proactive approach. It's about putting things in place to increase our tolerance and immunity to stress, so that when stress inevitably arises, we are more prepared to endure it.

So, what can you as an educator do to prioritise and practice your own self-care?

  • Start to recognise that you and your needs matter nurturing your own emotional and physical health is essential when you are in a care giving role. Looking after yourself is the best way to look after the children in your care. You can't give what you don't have!
  • Engage in activities that increase your stress tolerance we are more equipped to manage stress if we have a strong support network of friends, family or colleagues, engage in exercise, have a healthy diet, and are getting enough sleep. Practice self-compassion, have healthy boundaries, and be attuned to your needs.
  • Challenge unhelpful thoughts and self-talk our thoughts are directly linked to our feelings and actions. If you changed your self-talk from 'I can't cope, this is too hard' to 'I can do this, and if I am struggling, I will ask for help', imagine how this would impact how you feel and act toward others?
  • Find time each day to do something you find relaxing deep breathing, listening to music, appreciating nature, read a book, engage in something creative, whatever works for you. It doesn't have to be big or take up much time, but its flow on effects are powerful in preparing us to cope with stress.
  • Make it a habit book it in each day. Unless you prioritise and make time to care for your own needs, chances are it won't happen.

And is there anything that can be done at an organisational level? Here are a few ideas to talk about at your next staff meeting:

  • Break times take your allocated break, and if possible, leave the centre to get some fresh air and go for a walk.
  • Access to professional development and counselling talk with management about your professional development needs, and ask about counselling services if you feel you need some additional support.
  • Promote a workplace culture that encourages self-care - make self-care a talked about topic at your workplace, put ideas up on the staff noticeboard of how to practice self-care at home and at work, incorporate relaxation activities into the daily programming with children, check in with colleagues by genuinely asking 'How are you feeling today? How's your emotional cup?

Practicing self-care helps to fill your emotional cup. If your emotional cup is full, then you will have the energy, patience and emotional resources available to provide for and fill the emotional cups of the children in your care. So, how's your emotional cup today?

Written By:
Victoria Gibbs, Psychologist, Carers Connection

Girdin, D.A., Everly, G.S., & Dusek, D.E. (1996). Controlling stress and tension. Needham Heights, New Jersey: Allyn and Bacon.

Maslach, C. (2003). Burnout: The Cost of Caring. Los Altos, California: ISHK.

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