Supporting the Mental Health and Well-Being of Educators

Supporting the Mental Health and Well-Being of Educators: Prioritizing Care-for-the-Caregiver Culture in Schools

By: Scott Woitaszewski

Significant attention has been given to the psychological well-being of children and youth during the COVID-19 pandemic and other concurrent pervasive stressors. The potential for increased stress or psychological trauma in young people is complicated by the unknowns of multiple societal challenges (e.g., a pandemic, racism, civil unrest), and, for some, individual personal histories of prior traumas. Educators and school staff members are susceptible to similar challenges. Unfortunately, systematic care-for-the-caregiver and individual educator self-care strategies that support staff resilience are not often parts of a school’s culture. While self-care has risen to the level of an ethical responsibility among certain educator professional standards (e.g., school psychology), true implementation of a self-care culture in schools often remains elusive.  


Chronic stress and secondary traumatic stress 

A career in education has always been a challenge, but perhaps never more so than now. Educators have continued to meet academic standards while learning new technology skills on the fly and responding to an increased range of student needs. Crisis events that have a discrete beginning and end (i.e., “acute stressors”) are challenging enough. However, ongoing events that involve numerous unknowns (e.g., a pandemic, systemic racism) have the potential to produce chronic stress in humans. Chronic stress causes the body to remain in a constant state of alertness, despite being in no immediate danger. It can lead to significant physical, psychological, and interpersonal challenges. Educator secondary traumatic stress is also common, occurring when an individual is frequently supporting the needs of others who are suffering during crises. It can be particularly harmful to caregivers when experiencing their own chronic stress or psychological trauma.


Warning signs

While every individual reacts differently to traumatic stress, it is important for all educators to be aware of common warning signs. For example, changes to physical well-being (e.g., abrupt changes to appetite, changes to sleep patterns, frequent headaches) and increased cognitive or emotional struggles (e.g., inability to stop thinking about an issue, significant irritability, chronic fatigue) reflect the potential for psychological trauma. Personal and interpersonal changes may also occur in traumatized individuals. They may include decreased trust of others, hypervigilance, or increased cynicism. Staff members with histories of prior adverse experiences (e.g., personal loss, mental illness, lack of resources) are particularly vulnerable to psychological trauma during times of crisis.


Systemic approaches for care-for-the-caregiver in schools

Self-care in and of itself is a luxury and privilege that few educators experience fully, and it is often a burden left to individuals. Encouragement from others to “take care” may contribute to a positive school climate. However, it will not likely be sufficient in a strong care-for-the-caregiver culture. Systemic approaches to care-for-the-caregiver include strategies that actively and deliberately enable individual self-care. The goal is to work toward a sustained care-for-the-caregiver school culture for all staff members, and not just something that is revisited during times of crisis or high stress.


As a start, school leaders must acknowledge the reality of chronic educator stress and how they often experience multiple stressors at one time. Building staff member well-being could involve simple actions such as creating a “shout out” wall of gratitude notes or holding regular administrator office hours. Providing space for and recognizing the value of affinity groups gatherings is also encouraged. These, or similar actions, can increase staff member perceptions of connectedness, promote a psychologically safe environment, and contribute to the entire staff feeling heard and valued.


Moreover, school leaders must openly value staff member support-seeking as part of the school’s culture. Schools that build in peer support opportunities (e.g., teacher peer pairing, “buddy” classrooms, adequate substitute pool) provide options for staff members to request support with less guilt and to increase perceptions of collaborative support. School districts are encouraged to consider providing Employee Assistant Programs, or similar supports, as well. These services can be valuable for staff members with trauma histories and/or who are experiencing chronic stress currently.


Finally, schools are encouraged to build in regular staff discussions about the development of their care-for-the-caregiver culture. For example, how will the staff address the “glamorization of busyness” that is so common and reinforced in the workplace? How will a more reasonable work-life balance be emphasized and truly valued? Or, during times of crisis or high stress, how will the staff address the need to temporarily remove traumatized or excessively fatigued staff members from their direct work with children? Waiting until times of high stress or the day of a crisis to address such issues is often unproductive at best and perhaps even harmful.


Individual approaches to self-care

With the recognition that self-care is a privilege not readily available to or viable for all, individual staff members are encouraged to reflect on options to advance their own well-being whenever possible. While some may think of self-care as being about occasionally engaging in indulgent behavior, it is best conceived as a practice of realistic and sustained healthy approaches. For example, physical and emotional self-care can include seeking creative opportunities for rest or “brain breaks,” adjusting diet, and limiting the use of alcohol or other substances. Interpersonal self-care may involve taking time to appreciate others, engaging in spiritual or other calming activities, connecting with family or other social supports, or using humor. These approaches must not be difficult to access or drain time and resources.. Rather, they must be sustainable options that support the needs of each individual.



Chronic Educator stress and secondary traumatic stress are common challenges that are not often addressed well in schools. These experiences are even more challenging during times of multiple societal crises, and for educators with prior psychological trauma experience or who have limited exiting supports or resources. To support the mental health of educators, schools must actively develop systematic options that help build a care-for-the-caregiver culture. Within that culture, educators are encouraged to reflect on sustainable options for personal self-care to address physical, emotional, and interpersonal well-being.


Scott A. Woitaszewski, Ph.D, NCSP, is Professor & Director of the School Psychology Program in the Department of Counseling & School Psychology at the University of Wisconsin - River Falls, and a member of the National Association of School Psychologists’ School Safety and Crisis Response Committee.



Related Resources

Coffey, L., Crepeau-Hobson, F., Fernandez, B., & Pesce, R [Panelists]. (2020). Care for the caregivers: Information for school leaders and crisis teams. [Webinar]. National Association of School Psychologists.


National Association of School Psychologists. (2017). Care for the caregiver: guidelines for administrators and crisis teams. [handout]. Bethesda, MD: Author. Retrieved from:


Rossen, E., Clamp, L., & Crepeau-Hobson, F.  (2020) Secondary traumatic stress and staff well-being. [Webinar]. National Association of School Psychologists.