A Closer Look

Promoting School Psychological Service Delivery Through Active Self-Care

Even though psychologists know the importance of taking care of themselves, achieving it within the complex and demanding school settings that exist in today’s educational landscape can be a serious challenge. It’s a bit of a paradox that busy school psychologists face every day; we often fail to care for ourselves at the expense of caring for others. In fact, taking care of others is one of the primary goals for those entering a helping profession such as school psychology. It can be difficult, therefore, to motivate and encourage oneself to commit to engaging in behaviors that, at the surface, appear inconsistent with this goal. Recognizing this dilemma and the significance of personal well-being is a critical professional skill that can have powerful impacts on job productivity and effectiveness.

What Is Self-Care?

Broadly, self-care refers to behaviors that support our health and well-being. It’s not lazy or self-indulgent but rather a mechanism for taking care of ourselves, which then enables us to take care of others. While the practice of self-care has made its way into mainstream culture and often featured as a narrow and exclusive set of behaviors—think yoga, meditation, spa days—it’s important to recognize that self-care represents a broad range of behaviors aimed at taking care of one’s emotional, physical, spiritual, and social well-being. Self-care should be viewed as an important professional responsibility with direct impact on student outcomes. School psychologists who take time to recharge regularly are sure to be more efficient, effective, and accessible to the students, families, and school staff they serve.

Why Is Self-Care Important?

To fully understand the relevance of self-care as a professional responsibility, it is important to understand the relationship between self-care and stress. Stress is an “elevation in a person’s state of arousal or readiness, caused by some stimulus or demand” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005, p. 1). When well-managed, stress is helpful in mobilizing us to get things done and attend to important events, such as finishing a report for an early deadline, responding to a student crisis, or consulting with colleagues about a difficult case.

When stress becomes extreme or is not well-managed, however, it can impact both physical and mental health (Bryce, 2001). Increased levels of stress may also lead to occupational burnout (Rosenberg & Pace, 2006), a syndrome that involves depersonalization (e.g., negative, callous, or detached response to others), emotional exhaustion (e.g., feeling drained, lack of energy), and a sense of low personal accomplishment (e.g., feelings of incompetence, lack of productivity; Maslach, 1993). Burnout is an obvious risk to the individual experiencing it, but it can clearly have negative effects on others as well. For school psychologists, this could result in reduced quality of services to students, families, and other school staff.

Self-care is an important tool we can use to combat the inevitable stress that exists within the profession. Psychologists who regularly engage in self-care are more likely to be satisfied in their careers (Rupert, Miller, Tuminello Hartment & Bryant, 2012) and less likely to experience burnout (Rupert, Miller, & Dorociak, 2015). The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) also endorses self-care within the profession, conceptualizing it as a prevention activity that school psychologists can take to care for their students, schools, and themselves (NASP, 2020).

Practicing Self-Care as a School Psychologist

The onset of the novel coronavirus has changed how K–12 education is delivered to students across the world in dramatic ways. While we may eventually return to a more traditional way of work and life, the ever-changing landscape of personal and professional obligations elevate the stress everyone experiences. Many of us find ourselves living at work, while also trying to attend to our personal lives and commitments. It is important to recognize that both the demands for self-care and the threats to its effectiveness are at an all-time high. We likely won’t always get it right, and it will be harder than ever! Starting with a commitment and practicing self-compassion is an important first step. Self-compassion is one’s ability to mindfully accept painful moments by embracing oneself with kindness and care and accepting that imperfection is an important part of a shared human experience (Neff & Davidson, 2016). Adopting a mindset that helps one recognize that imperfection is expected and accepted can help to maintain a commitment to self-care.

Effective self-care is not accomplished through a one-size-fits-all approach. While everyone’s approach may vary, there are some common features of effective self-care. In a meta-analysis of research on self-care, Norcross and Barnett (2008) identified the 12 most effective strategies cited by professional psychologists. The top 12 include:

  1. Valuing the person of the professional (prioritizing personal needs)
  2. Refocusing on the rewards (remembering why you entered the profession)
  3. Recognizing the hazards (identifying potential pitfalls)
  4. Minding the body (taking care of physical needs)
  5. Nurturing relationships
  6. Setting boundaries
  7. Restructuring cognitions (holding balanced perspectives)
  8. Sustaining healthy escapes (developing positive outlets and habits)
  9. Creating a flourishing environment
  10. Seeking personal therapy
  11. Cultivating spirituality and mission
  12. Fostering creativity and growth

Above all, it’s important to strive to develop a self-care plan that is feasible and accessible. It should not feel like an add-on activity. Beneficial self-care plans include intentional actions or behaviors that allow the individual to flourish, are reciprocal in nature (e.g., compliment behaviors of those around you), and are integrated thoughtfully into a psychologist’s life (Wise, Hersh, & Gibson, 2012).

Promoting Self-Care Among Others

School psychologists can extend the concept of self-care to a more collective approach of care within school settings. Nikita Valerio, a community organizer and researcher, has used the term community care (Dockray, 2019) to recognize that there are times when self-care falls short of what is needed—that we need to move beyond the idea of teaching individuals to care for themselves and work more collectively to care for one another. Community care is another form of compassion that focuses on using your privilege to be there for one another in various ways. School psychologists who promote community care can help others by modeling effective self-care; actively developing self-care plans at individual, group, and school-wide levels; and using community assets to promote well-being for all. A community care approach may also be particularly helpful when advocating or working with individuals with socially marginalized identities, who may be reluctant or at times unable to care for themselves. Community care could help them take that initial first step to reach out or find help. It could serve as an incredible asset in the absence of self-care.

Related Webinar: Promoting School Psychological Service Delivery Through Active Self-Care  

References

Bryce, C. P. (2001). Stress management in disasters. Pan American Health Organization.

Dockray, H. (2019, May 24) Self-care isn’t enough. We need community care to thrive. Mashable. https://mashable.com/article/community-care-versus-self-care/

Maslach, C. (1993). Burnout: A multidimensional perspective. In W. B. Schaufeli, C. Maslach, & T. Marek (Eds.), Professional burnout: Recent developments in theory and research. Routledge.

National Association of School Psychologists. (2020). Self-care for school psychologists. https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/mental-health/self-care-for-school-psychologists

Neff, K. D., & Davidson,O. (2016). Self-compassion: Embracing suffering with kindness. In I. Ivtzan & T. Lomas (Eds.), Mindfulness in Positive Psychology (pp. 37–50). Routledge.

Norcross, J. C., & Barnett, J. E. (2008). Self-care as ethical imperative. The Register Report. Retrieved from: http://www.nationalregister.org/trr_spring08_norcross.html.

Rosenberg, T., & Pace, M. (2006). Burnout among mental health professionals: Special considerations for the marriage and family therapist. Journal of marital and family therapy, 32(1), 87–99.

Rupert, P. A., Miller, A. O., & Dorociak, K. E. (2015). Preventing burnout: What does the research tell us? Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 46(3), 168–174. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0039297

Rupert, P. A., Miller, A. O., Tuminello Hartman, E. R., & Bryant, F. B. (2012). Predictors of career satisfaction among practicing psychologists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 43(5), 495–502. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0029420.

United States Department of Health and Human Services. (2005). A guide to managing stress in crisis response professions. Author.

Wise, E. H., Hersh, M. A., & Gibson, C. M. (2012). Ethics, self-care and well-being for psychologists: Reenvisioning the stress-distress continuum. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 43(5), 487–494. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0029446

About the Author

Shanna Davis, Associate Professor & Kristy Kelly, Assistant Clinical Professor
Shanna Davis is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Eastern Washington University. She has been a school psychologist, teacher, administrator and trainer. Her scholarship is focused on supervision, pre-service training and promoting language development using community spaces. She co-authored, “Supervising the School Psychology Practicum: A Guide for Field and University Supervisors” with Kristy Kelly. Kristy Kelly is an Associate Clinical Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Kristy is the director of a university training clinic and coordinates clinical training within the School Psychology Program. Her scholarship focuses on clinical and practicum supervision, pre-service training, and issues of professional practice. Kristy engages in scholarship that promotes the training of pre-service psychologists and integrates research and practice. She co-authored, “Supervising the School Psychology Practicum: A Guide for Field and University Supervisors” with Shanna Davis.