Promoting Healthy Relationships in Stressful Environments

Promoting Healthy Relationships in Stressful Environments

1.1 The Learning Environment 

Schools have multiple purposes and aims. One of principal tasks of any school is to ensure that all pupils have access to the curriculum and are challenged to learn. Educators must always strive to deliver the curriculum in a structured, imaginative and attractive manner. School is the environment, beyond the family of origin, where the journey of socialisation is cultivated as pupils progress through the system and exit ready for the world of work and training. Socialisation in this sense is pastoral as it encompasses the cultural, moral, religious, spiritual, emotional and physical dimensions of the whole person.

Currently in Ireland we have a variety of schools and while the educational aims and legislation are similar the provision, ethos and atmosphere of each individual school is shaped by the needs and talents of the school communities. Many schools overlap in terms of curriculum provision while aspects of inclusion, behaviour, staffing, leadership, patronage and resources are some of the common issues apparent in all models. “Every child is different- so there is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. There is no one way to learn, no one way to behave and there is no one solution that will solve all children’s learning and behavioural difficulties” (Carey, 2005, p.5). Equally a one-size-fits-all approach to training teachers or assessing their methods is flawed as teachers tend to use a variety of techniques and methods which work well for them and their students.

I have the privilege of teaching in a special school community which provides a supportive pastoral learning environment for pupils with mild general learning disabilities (MGLD), where success is assessed beyond the academic curriculum to include the acquiring of social skills, communication skills and the building up of self-esteem. The widest range of learning experiences are offered in a relaxed environment by experienced teachers and special needs assistants (SNA’s).

Over time I have come to know that the foundations of good teaching lies not only in classroom practice but is based on who we are and how we relate to the world around us. Acknowledging stress in the learning environment and the ways in which it can impact on the all-important teacher pupil relationship will be addressed in this paper.

1.2 Addressing Pupils Stress

Many pupils in today’s society suffer from anxiety and Special Educational Needs (SEN) pupils are no different in this respect. It is estimated by The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS, 2009-2010) that one in ten children and adolescence suffer from mental health disorders. Pupils with social, emotional and/or behavioural difficulties (SEBD) can experience difficulties which include depression, eating disorders, neurosis, childhood psychosis, attention deficit disorder/ ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder. At times the outward expression of anxiety can manifest as a challenging behaviour or can be internalised, as a withdrawn, introverted characteristic trait. It is always important to explore what is behind the behaviour. Being able to describe, name and discuss feelings is a central part of the school curriculum and a necessary life skill.

When we as educators fully engage and listen to these pupils we can then hear their voice, give weight to their opinions and in collaboration make decisions and interventions that are positive. It is a fact that young people want to be heard and to have someone they can speak to who believes in them and will value their interpretations of the world as authentic. Pupils need to be encouraged to be active agents in school life by their teachers. This leads to positive interactions and relationships amongst staff and pupils. We all know a teacher who made a difference in our own lives, one who instinctively seemed to read well hidden emotions and abilities. Teachers who aren’t accustomed to deep listening may need guidance to move beyond just hearing to tune into the experiences of the pupil. Cultivating this sense of connectedness strengthens the relationship between teachers and pupils and can have a lasting impact on a child.

Structured programmes aimed at teaching emotional literacy and skills to pupils have found their way into our schools and this is a development to be proud of. Helping pupils to regulate their own behaviour and take control of the manner in which they express their emotions is a coping strategy that can have a positive impact on their academic and social growth. Recent developments in neuroscience have led to a greater awareness of the connection between our thinking, our emotions and our behaviour. Current knowledge on how the brain works is impacting on learning theory. In the past fifteen years an increase in scientific research on the brain has emerged. The brain is a social organ and mind functions such as empathy, self-regulation and staying calm in stressful situations can be enhanced through positive relational experiences.

Daniel Goleman (1995) expands Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences even further; to include the affective dimension. To flourish as human beings, he argues, that we need to bring thinking/intelligence into our emotions. Emotional intelligence has four parts according to Goleman: self-awareness, managing our emotions, empathy, and social skill.

As teachers it is likely that we too must be supported to become emotionally literate teachers. Considering the plasticity and resilience of the brain; means there is always room to consolidate learning and new ways of knowing ourselves and our purpose within education. Traditional teacher training methods in skills and methodologies is clearly important but we also need to address the internal world of the teacher. The challenge is to create spaces where teachers can work together in meaningful ways to discover and rediscover their craft, vocation and purpose. We must take seriously the life of a teacher. Programmes nurturing teachers creativity, individuality and purpose need to be facilitated so teachers can truly engage in the process of teaching and making connections with the curriculum and their students.

1.3 Acknowledging Teacher Stress

Reducing stress in the classroom reduces teacher burn-out, improves classroom climate and leads to better academic outcomes” (Diamond, 2010, p. 784).

Our jobs in education call upon us to plan, organise, mark, set targets, make resources and that is before we ever begin to teach the curriculum to our pupils. Added to this we manage to contend with the ever increasing policies, class sizes and a continuing reduction of budgets for much needed resources. These are the factual challenges we as teachers and principals face in the current economic and social climate. Schools and their staff are expected to seamlessly keep up with the quick pace of change in education and society.

On a deeper level is the internal world of expectations that teachers place upon themselves. It is a world that can be driven by unrealistic demands and harsh self-judgements. This, I believe is partly fuelled by the methods in which education is assessed and in turn by the way we as teachers and school leaders are scruntinised. The curriculum at primary, post primary and University level in Ireland is predominantly concerned with what we should know and seeks to test knowledge through assessments and standardised tests. This rational-empirical approach is driven by policy makers and little time is invested into a holistic education which encompasses reflection, contemplation and awareness.

Any number of internal or external scenarios can add to a teacher’s daily stress level, which, over time, can lead to burnout—a major issue for those in the education profession. Researchers who studied burnout characterise depletion as loss of empathy, increase in cynicism and a tendency for once caring professionals to blame others including students for their problems (Maslach, 1982; Sakharov and Farber 1983). An increase in acting-out and student aggression is thought to be closely linked to an increase in teacher stress levels (Balson 1992; King 1995) as cited in Westwood (2002, p.58).

Without doubt teaching falls into the category of the caring professions; and yet as a group we rarely focus on our needs. Proactive teachers acknowledge the needs of the individual and the group by energising the curriculum. Such teachers recognise the all-encompassing aims of educating the whole child and in turn often have better relationships with their pupils. Teachers are always striving and pouring their energy into supporting pupils and their families. Educators, commonly known as ‘chalk face warriors’ continually struggle to find solutions and remain positive. Everyday pressures can become stressors to the point of ill-health and exhaustion.

1.4 A Personal Discovery

As a classroom teacher I have had many memorable moments of success and failure and both processes have led to invaluable insights. Alongside this continuum there is always stress, sometimes good and other times negative. Life at any stage can be a balancing act and will often leave learner and teacher feeling confused, tired, stressed and bewildered. The ways in which we internalise our lives determine our view of ourselves and this process of making meaning and telling ourselves stories begins in childhood. The way people respond and internalise events in their lives vary and may be related to their own levels of self-esteem.

From personal experience in the classroom I had become aware of the need to develop a healthy attitude towards self-care. Cultivating mindfulness and weaving it into my day allowed me to be more compassionate with myself and to also become aware of the impossible standards I was setting for myself as a teacher. Mindfulness is not about trying to improve or change things rather the “challenge of mindfulness is to be present for your experience as it is” (Kabat-Zinn, 2012, P. 26).

Being able to stay present to the student who slams his/her fist into the wall as he/she tells you to **** off enables the adult to remain calm and compassionate towards the student. In turn the student is supported through the emotions and the anger in the aftermath; enabling the student to reflect on his/her own behaviour. It can be rewarding to witness the transformation in the child who is supported and listened to rather than punished. Very often we only see the misbehavior and do not seek to understand what thoughts and feelings prompted the outburst. Tony Humphreys identifies the above aggressive type of behaviour as a sign of emotional disturbance. In his book, A Different Kind Of Teacher, Humphreys offers the following as a means to understanding a student with challenging behaviour as he/she “acts out of his or her inner conflicts in a sub-conscious attempt to get his or her needs met” (1993, p. 95).

Mindfulness is a strategy which helps me to be a calmer teacher and in turn I notice the students in my care cope better and engaged more in their own learning. The all-important relationship between the teacher and the student is strengthened.

Wanting to know more I completed a Masters research which documented and piloted a mindfulness study with adolescent pupils in the special school. Analysis of pupil responses, post delivery of the mindfulness programme, documented a greater awareness of inter-personal skills including critical-thinking, being more attentive and being more emphatic.

In its simplest form, empathy is a quality which enables people to feel and see the world from the perspective of others”.                                                   (Cooper, as cited in Best, 2000, p. 120)

The results were so compelling that I embarked on training to become a mindfulness teacher. In a sense I had realised I had put the cart before the horse. The foundation for developing holistic programmes of empathy and care begins not with the students but the educators.

1.5 Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction for Educators

If we want to grow in our practice, we have two primary places to go: to the inner ground from which good teaching comes and to the community of fellow teachers from whom we can learn more about ourselves and our craft. (Palmer, 1988, p.141)

On completion of training as a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher I offered a course to educators called The MBSR in Education Programme which involves training in mindfulness practices, followed by mindful dialogue so issues which impinge on a teacher’s personal and professional life can be met in an open and non-judgemental manner. The MBSR in Education Programme takes place over eight evenings and there is one Saturday, which is like a mini retreat for teachers. Primarily the course is based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR programme, which is an evidence based programme documenting physical, psychological and social benefits. Several components have been added so teachers can begin to recognise their inner drivers and levels of stress. Self-compassion rather than harsh self-judgement is embraced and no doubt this feeds back into school based interactions with colleagues and students. The teachers I work with explore their internal world and listen to their inner teacher.

1.6 Teacher Wellbeing

Caring for yourself, re-establishing peace in yourself, is the basic condition for helping someone else                                                                                                              (Hahn, 2006)

Occupational stress is on the increase worldwide and can have a knock on effect to all areas of a person’s life. For people under real stress, there is an element of having to keep up the appearance of being well and an acceptance that one has to be stressed to get a job done. Recognising and preventing stress is far better than waiting to deal with chronic stress which can lead to absenteeism, hospitalisation, depression and even death. In terms of generic occupational stress, the five highest scoring items among INTO members were: workload, insufficient resources with which to work, being undervalued, equipment, and not being able to switch off at home (Wynne, Clarkin and Dolphin ,1991). It is well documented that teacher burnout can affect students outcomes.

Teachers, unlike other caring professions do not have any form of supervision to ensure that their own well-being and mental health is both protected and nurtured. There are very few continuing professional development (CPD) courses, presently in Ireland, which focus specifically on the well-being of the educator. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction in Education addresses the emotional, physical and mental well-being of teachers and principals via a group/support structure. However mindfulness “is not a magic wand” (Greenland) and will not appeal to everyone.

Without doubt teachers genuinely want to do their best and need support from those who are prepared to listen in order to remain effective both emotionally and physically within the learning context. An emotionally literate teacher, whose own mental health and emotional skills are continually fostered and developed, is more likely to be able to support pupils at risk of developing emotional /mental health problems. Self-reflective educators are more effective in the teaching process as a whole. It is clear that we do not all process information in the same way and that our capacity to remain as energised, passionate and resilient teachers is not fixed.

The Department of Education and Skills, Boards of Management and unions need to prioritise a new form of professional development devoted to nourishing the inner life of teachers. Embracing this shift in our thinking is a challenge as we need to create spaces for educators so teachers can stay grounded, centred and energised. Raising teachers self-awareness enables teachers to read themselves, their students and situations in a transformational observational manner.

It is time to put the importance of staff well-being on the agenda. The best way to foster and develop relationships in schools is to create support systems at national level to promote teachers wellbeing. We will in the long run be providing more compassionate, caring and effective places of learning with teachers reconnecting again with their joy and passion.

List of Abbreviations

ADHD: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

ASD: Autistic Spectrum Disorder

CAMHS: Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service

CPD: Continuing Professional Development

DES: Department of Education and Skills

EBD: Emotional Behavioural Disorder

INTO: Irish National Teachers Organisation

MBSR: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

MGLD: Mild General Learning Disability

ODD: Oppositional Defiant Disorder

SEBD: Social, Emotional Behavioural Difficulties

SEN: Special Education Needs

SNA: Special Needs Assistant


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Carey, D., 2005. Essential Guide to Special Education in Ireland. Dublin: Primary ABC.

Cooper, B., 2000. Rediscovering the personal in education. In: R. Best, ed. 2000. Education for Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development. London: Continuum. Ch. 9.

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