How to Manage Stress in a Special Education Classroom
It’s the middle of July and the first thoughts of the coming school year may be starting to creep in to your “loving summer vacation” mindset. Perhaps you are feeling excited about some new strategies you want to try out. Maybe there’s a new teacher or assistant coming on board that you are looking forward to working with, or you’ve started to create materials for your classroom that you think are awesome. Or, maybe, you are starting to dread the new year. You’ve heard that your caseload will be increased by three new students, (all with interfering behaviors, of course) your favorite IA is moving out of state, your class is being moved to a smaller, windowless room, or you have four IEP’s in the first two weeks of September.
Believe me, I’ve been there, and know the combination of excitement and anxiety that comes with the approach of a new school year. This year, why not be proactive with stress-busting techniques that you can use both in the classroom and out?
Typical signs of stress are impatience, lack of focus and concentration, irritability, and pessimism. If you are demonstrating these symptoms, students and co-workers often bear the brunt, which can quickly result in similar stressed behaviors in them. Remember, stress is contagious. I’m sure you’ve noticed that on days when you are feeling especially stressed out, student behavior is at its worst.
So here are my favorite stress reducing techniques. I’ve included tips on how and where you can practice the stress-busters, and where appropriate, how to incorporate them to benefit the whole class. (Click here to download Top Ten Stress-Busters for the Special Education Teacher.)
1) Smile! So easy and so effective! According to several studies, smiling tricks your brain into thinking something good is about to happen. And when you smile at someone, they will invariably smile back at you (ie. two birds with one smile)! To read more about the benefits of smiling go to: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/smiling-can-trick-your-brain-happiness-boost-your-health-ncna822591
2) Breathe! Tried and true, taking deep breathes really does reduce stress. It’s important to think about the breathes, and make them slow and deep. Count to five on the inhale, hold for four, count to five on the exhale, hold for four. You can do several of these in under a minute and you will feel the difference, I guarantee.
3) Stretch! You can do this one alone or get the students to stretch along with you. This is a great way to take a quick break and reduce stress. Reach for the ceiling, touch the floor, lean back, bend side to side, lift your shoulders, drop your shoulders, rotate you head, put your hands on your hips and do the twist! Repeat!
4) Aromatherapy! Do you have a scent that you love such as cookies, peppermint, a perfume, babies, soil, lavender? Keep a small container (a 35mm film canister works well) with a calming scent (baby lotion, vanilla, potting soil, a lavender sachet etc.) and inhale deeply to transport you to a calmer place.
5) Connect! If you are having a very rough day, take a few minutes during your lunch break and call someone you love. Hearing their voice might be just what you need to decompress. Get together with other special education teachers and spend time talking about issues and strategies or just vent! I suggest you try forming a group before the start of the school year and then strive to make it a regular meeting. (Remember, you cannot share the names or identify the students that you are talking about!) This won’t help in the moment but is a wonderful way to manage stress in the long term, and we all know how misery loves company!
6) Walk! Your students have just gone to specials, you have a million things to do, and the stress is starting to build up. Before you start on the work, take a brisk 5 minute walk around your school building. The exercise will help you regain focus and composure and you will be better able to tackle your tasks.
7) Dance! Is the stress level building up in the classroom? Take a dance break with the students. Put on your favorite high energy song and let everyone rock out.
8) Listen! Waves crashing on the beach, birds chirping, classical music, raindrops on the roof, or crickets serenading the night are just a few of the soothing sounds that can transport you to a calmer place. Go to YouTube and look up meditation or soothing sounds and you will find countless tracks to choose from. You can play it as a background sound in your classroom or take 5 minutes during your lunch or break (if you have one!). Engage the students by having them put their heads down on their desk, close their eyes and listen. This is a nice calming activity that can be used between transitions.
9) Chocolate! Not just an antidote for Dementors, chocolate can actually give you a quick boost. This can be a dangerous stress reliever if you may find yourself chomping down on a chocolate kiss every half hour. I suggest your keep one or two of your favorite chocolates in your drawer and when you really need it let it slowly dissolve in your mouth for a few moments of bliss.
10) Checklists! Okay, so this final tip involves a little work, but it actually is a great way to reduce stress. At the start of your day make a list of everything you think that you need to do. Then place each item from that list into one of the following categories: Must Do Today, Must Do Later, and Must Do? Later Maybe Never. By prioritizing your list of things that need to get done, your list (hopefully) becomes shorter and you may find there are things that actually don’t really need to be done. (Click here to download a sample To Do List.)
For more suggestions on ways to reduce stress, check out this article from verywellmind, which lists 70(!) stress reduction techniques.
I love clouds! This picture was taken on a road trip with my two sisters, and the image always invokes happy memories. So, one last suggestion. When setting up your classroom for the new year, put up some pictures or posters that make you happy and are special to you; an enlarged picture from your vacation, a poster of your favorite band, an inspirational quote or something that makes you laugh. When you feel the stress starting to come on, look at your visual for a quick reset to your happy place!