The global pandemic didn’t introduce the idea of the stressed-out teacher. Teachers have always taken on an exhaustive amount of responsibilities, long before COVID-19 was a part of our vernacular. But, as workers on the front lines, educators have had to bear an unprecedented number of expectations these last two and a half years. They’ve had to shoulder a multitude of roles beyond that of just educator—they’ve had to become counselors, health experts, family therapists, learner advocates—the list goes on. The many trials teachers have had to face during this unprecedented era also serve as a cogent reminder that May is also Mental Health Awareness Month. So while we take time this week to show appreciation for our educators, let’s be mindful that our gratitude should be ongoing and not solely reserved for Educator Appreciation Week. And as we consider their invaluable impact on our—and our kids’—lives, let’s go beyond gratitude to promote their mental health and help them practice self-care.
Why Self-Care Matters
Let’s clear up one common misconception: Self-care is not self-indulgence or selfishness. Self-care means taking care of yourself so that you can be healthy and do your job, and help others do the same. It means not neglecting yourself, and finding a healthy balance between your personal and professional life, so that you’re able to give the time and energy your learners need to thrive. As the saying goes, “you can’t pour from an empty cup:” we can’t give to others if we are depleted from not taking care of ourselves. Easier said than done—I know—so let’s explore some relatively easy-to-implement self-care habits that you can try to put yourself on a better self-care path. By practicing these, you’ll also be modeling healthy habits for others, creating a virtuous cycle where everyone benefits.
Self-care should not be an overwhelming or complicated chore, it can often be as simple as taking a few minutes of silence to center yourself on your commute to work. There are many simple ways—too many to exhaustively list here—to incorporate self-care practices into your day, and hopefully the ideas here will spark your inspiration to create a self-care routine that is personally rewarding and lasts well beyond Educator Appreciation Week.
Take a few minutes each day to practice good self-care by:
Brewing your favorite cup of tea or coffee
Finding moments throughout the day to enjoy a bit of quiet
Taking a short walk outside (instead of scrolling the internet)
Setting a timer and meditating, or focusing, on something that brings you joy
Using a sensory fidget or tool throughout your day (I am currently obsessed with squeezing putty)
Doodling or coloring on adult (or even a kid’s) coloring book
Creating a music playlist for different moods or feelings (and don’t forget to dance!)
Placing some items that bring you joy or peace on your desk or throughout your work environment
Drinking water at regular intervals
Creating self-care kits for you to access at work, your car, and at home
Using calming scents, candles, and misters (lavender is a hit!)
Wearing comfortable clothing, when possible
Stretching throughout the day, as long as needed
Journaling a list of the things you are thankful for each day
Reading or listening to an audiobook
Finding ways to exercise here and there (even if for only five minutes at a time)
Giving yourself a mani/pedi or trying a new facial mask
Eating a little something sweet (gum, mint, small candy, etc.)
Making snacks or meals the night before
Avoiding work on the weekends (or during leisure time) whenever possible
Most teachers know that we need to take care of ourselves, and we can easily find the many different resources out there to help us accomplish this task. So why do the majority of us fail to follow self-care techniques? The answer varies person to person, but perhaps these wellness tasks seem to take too much extra time out of our day. Or maybe they aren’t well integrated into our daily lives, and so appear out of reach. Most perplexing, we may (incorrectly) feel that we don’t deserve to reward ourselves. It’s important to push past these mental obstacles to realize the benefits of incorporating self-care practices. Know that you are valued (and so is your work), and that with a few small shifts in mindset you can achieve the self-care necessary to feel fulfilled.
Follow these tips to make self-care a natural part of your everyday routine:
Build in rest as a catalyst for productivity, not a break from it.
Streamline your schedule—work smarter, not harder.
Pair a self-care habit with a regular routine so that it becomes natural (e.g. taking a walk during a phone call, or incorporate breathing exercises while doing the dishes).
Develop a positive association with self-care by reflecting on the benefits and finding acts that truly make you happy. (i.e. don’t train for a marathon if you dislike running!)
Focus on the act of self-care and gratitude without expecting immediate results.
Focus on taking small steps to big goals so that you don’t lose sight of the big picture.
I’m Nicky Collins, The Autism Coach, and I’m a champion for autistic women and girls. It is my belief that every woman and girl deserves to be proud of who they are and not frightened or fearful. I spent 34 years not knowing that I’m autistic, and this revelation empowered me to use my personal development skills and passion for helping others. I started a business that encourages and emboldens autistic women and girls to step into an authentic version of their autistic self. Through my passion of helping others—which started by helping myself—I am a globally recognised motivational speaker, coach and transformation leader, whose work has touched the lives of many families across the world. Born on the outskirts of London, I now live in the beautiful Derbyshire countryside with my teenage son, cat and two guinea pigs. Location isn’t an issue for me as I conduct much of my work online through 121 client sessions, courses, and group coaching programmes. I am on a mission to challenge the misconceptions and stigmas around autism and what I consider to be my superpower.
I am often asked why I tend to work with females only, the main reason is that women and girls are so often missed or misdiagnosed for an autism diagnosis, the vast majority of research is carried out on cisgender white males. These observations have become the autistic norms for which individuals are measured against, so if you don’t tick the boxes neatly, you may struggle to gain a diagnosis. Autism is a spectrum, this is very well known, so it makes sense that people display their autistic characteristics differently regardless of gender or race. After all, autism itself isn’t gendered, if it was then you’d have male autism, female autism, transgender, and non-binary autism which makes absolutely no sense.
What does make sense is to know yourself and work on yourself (work on things like triggers that can be barriers to learning); reasonable adjustments in school can be made if you know what you need. I once worked with a young person who had a table outside the classroom. When he started to feel overwhelmed, he’d walk out of the class and sit at the desk outside the class. If he was able to, he would continue his work, otherwise he’d take the time to destress and decompress. This worked well for the entire class, the student was able to learn key skills around autonomy and honouring his needs in the moment. The class experienced no disruption from potentially explosive behaviour. The teacher was able to continue to teach, and then would check on the student when he had removed himself from the class. It was a brilliant arrangement and the autistic young man didn’t experience any shame from potentially melting down in front of his fellow students.
There are similar things you can do at home to support your young person, but first you need to know that learning styles can look different to neurodivergent people. Fidgeting around, not making eye contact and doodling does not mean your person isn’t engaged. Quite the contrary! These activities allow a person to focus their mind without the added sensory inputs of eye contact, or the focus required to sit still—which do not help autistic people to learn but rather hinder their growth and frustrate teachers or parents!
Most of the time helping your autistic child to thrive means you need to become a detective, so working backwards from the event that wasn’t supportive to their growth or was disruptive to the family. Once you’ve worked out what triggers them (maybe it’s sound, a certain smell or being asked to do something in a way that their brain rejects), then you can start to put a plan into place that creates more balance. More balance has a knock-on effect in all areas, like in their confidence and self-esteem, and their problem-solving skills develop due to being given the chance to work through things rather than being punished for bad behaviour.
Life is way too short to take things seriously all the time, so an element of play is another invaluable source of learning and development. Things like executive function can really trip autistic people up. I have been known to lose six hours straight looking out of the window watching for squirrels, if I don’t have systems in place then I will lose large chunks of time, and this leaves me feeling frustrated and inadequate. What I like to do (and what I suggest to other people) is to make the things I don’t want to do into games. I’ll often go into the kitchen and fill the kettle up to the top, that way it takes longer to boil, as soon as I flick the switch on the kettle I start with my chosen task, maybe it’s washing up, I will then race myself against the kettle. Chances are the kettle will boil and I’ll continue to wash the dishes until they are finished—it’s the getting started that’s the hard part! This can be transferred to all sorts of areas and the games can be different—the only limit is your imagination—so you can have some real fun getting creative here.
My top tip for autistic people is to recognise that our brains process information differently to our neurotypical counterparts, this means that we need more time to process information. This doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it means that the process of information going in and coming out in a way that is useful is delayed for us. This can feel frustrating, but don’t worry—when the information has been processed you’ll be just as well informed as those around you, if not more so. Trust the process.
Nicky Collins, The Autism Coach, is a champion for autistic women and girls. It is her belief that every woman and girl deserves to be proud of who they are and not frightened or fearful. Nicky spent 34 years not knowing she is autistic and has ADHD; this revelation empowered her to use her personal development skills and passion for helping others, into a business that encourages and emboldens autistic women and girls to step into an authentic version of their autistic self. Nicky is a globally recognised motivational speaker, coach and transformation leader, whose work has touched the lives of many families across the world. Born on the outskirts of London, Nicky lives in the UK with her teenage son, cat and two guinea pigs. Location isn’t an issue for Nicky as she conducts the majority of her work online through 121 client sessions, courses and group coaching programmes. Nicky is on a mission to challenge the misconceptions and stigmas around autism and what she considers her superpower.”
“Play is the foundation of learning, creativity, self-expression, and constructive problem-solving. It’s how children wrestle with life to make it meaningful.” Dr. Susan Linn
Purposeful play is an integral part of every child’s development. Not only does it engage them in the learning process, but it creates positive associations between developing underlying skills and the act of having fun. Some say a teacher’s ability to incorporate the “fun-factor” is the secret to their success, as play has a monumental impact on learners’ academic and social-emotional skills. Intentional, structured play is therefore key when implementing instructional strategies. As the Harvard Graduate School of Education states in Playing to Learn, “There is a universality to play: children are often more relaxed and engaged during play, and it’s enjoyable — all aspects that facilitate learning.” This ideology fits well with Learnfully’s approach, utilizing systematic play and interest-based learning to build a strong rapport, maximize instructional time, expedite progress, and bolster learner’s self-confidence.
This methodology is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which in 2018 published a report on the subject. “Research demonstrates that developmentally appropriate play with parents and peers is a singular opportunity to promote the social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain. Furthermore, play supports the formation of the safe, stable, and nurturing relationships with all caregivers that children need to thrive. Play is not frivolous: it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (ie, the process of learning, rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.”
We sat down with Dr. Misha Yajnik, MD, FAAP, a board-certified pediatrician, to explore how she incorporates play into her discussions and recommendations for families near and far.
Let’s start with the importance of play in a child’s overall development. Can you explain how valuable play is for learners of all needs?
“Your child’s brain development is very critical in the first 5 years. Therefore, the importance of play is critical starting as young as infancy. Play is important for gross motor, fine motor, communication, problem solving, and social development. Not only is it crucial for physical development but for academic and emotional development as well. Children’s developmental trajectory is mediated by appropriate, affective relationships with loving and consistent caregivers as they relate to children through play. Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them.”
As a pediatrician, how do you promote play during well checks?
“As a pediatrician, I strongly support unscheduled, spontaneous, non-screen, child-driven, creative play for all children of all ages. I emphasize that active child-centered play is a time-tested way of producing healthy, fit young bodies physically and mentally. I educate parents during well visits on the importance of free play, and not getting bogged down with fancy toys and electronics. Not all toys are created equal, in an advanced age of technology, toys that require more imagination are always the better option for your child, such as blocks and puzzles. As a proud member of the LEGO Foundations’ Prescription for Play Program, I remind parents not to fall for marketing tactics attempting to get us to buy the best toys for brain development. Keeping it simple is truly the best choice.”
In Close, how do you encourage parents to incorporate play into their lifestyle?
“The most important advice I give is to just stop and slow down. Allow the child to have free time during the day to play with an adult or even just by themselves. Self play is just as important in fostering creativity. Allow the child to lead. Not everything needs to be planned or organized. Be spontaneous, let them problem-solve, let them create.”
Additional resources on playing and its benefits to childhood development:
Dr. Misha Yajnik, MD, FAAP is a Board-Certified pediatrician practicing in the US. She completed her undergraduate studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio and obtained her medical degree from Ross University School of Medicine in Dominica. With over a decade of experience caring for children from newborns to adolescents, Dr. Yajnik is dedicated to her patients’ physical and emotional health. As a parent herself, she believes in supporting others through the peaks and valleys of parenthood. Dr. Yajnik uses her Instagram account (@consciouspediatrician) to discuss emotional wellbeing, conscious parenting, and to combat misinformation. Promoting mindful living at a young age fosters an environment of support for the next generation to thrive.
Many adults can relate to their kids’ feelings of social angst during these unprecedented times. I’ve personally had to seek advice on how to re-engage with the world outside after being so guarded these past two years. I need to do this in order to keep my own and my children’s social skills sharp. I’ve had great success developing their social skills through intentional activities like role playing, organized playdates, and facilitated groups (groups led by a coach or mentor), and I want to share my insights so that other caregivers and educators can benefit from them for their own learners’ growth. As we keep a special spotlight on Autism Awareness this month, it’s important to consider the needs of children on the spectrum—and how they can benefit from a sustained focus on social skills development.
What is Socialization?
Socialization is important for a learner’s social-emotional health across the board. Merriam-Webster defines socialization as, “the process by which a human being beginning at infancy acquires the habits, beliefs, and accumulated knowledge of society through education and training for adult status.” This learning and development must stem from adults, who nurture it through mindful interaction and social cues. For learners to thrive socially, adults must explicitly teach the skills required to interact with their peers and others in their social spheres. Without direct instruction and practice, we risk our learners never developing these critical skills, which contribute to their success as individuals (and later as adults). Rice University’s Introduction to Business course (available on openstax.org) highlights the importance of developing interpersonal skills for success in the workplace. “People with great interpersonal skills will always do better on and off the job than those who lack them. It has been estimated that up to 90 percent of our workplace success depends on an understanding of other people.” With this in mind let’s explore three ways that you can develop, strengthen, and apply your learners’ social skills across environments.
The Power of Roleplaying
Roleplaying is a tried and tested method for creating a strong socialization framework, and works well for learners both with and without a learning difference diagnosis. Individuals on the autism spectrum utilize role playing exercises with repetition and consistency because the experience serves as a roadmap when faced with uncomfortable or new situations in social settings. Another benefit: if your child enjoys the roleplaying experience with you, it will create a positive association (via intrinsic reinforcement) with social interactions in general, encouraging them to practice in the outside world!
Playdates are back in full effect! (Even though some adults might not even feel equipped to handle the potential hiccups that may occur after two years in isolation.) Depending on your learner’s level of social comfort, you may need to facilitate play with a coach, model conversation and collaboration, and remain present to help them problem-solve when dilemmas arise. We’ve compiled a short list of resources below for you to review when planning and reflecting on your child’s playdates:
Social skills groups help teach children how to communicate with others, but they add so much more value than that. Social skills groups help increase the overall quality of life for the child and play a vital role in how they develop meaningful relationships. Social group facilitators are trained experts on the science of teaching socialization. I’ve benefited from these groups personally; my neurodivergent eight-year-old yearns for social interaction, but yet does not feel equipped to maintain a friendship in person because of his anxiety. I enrolled him in an online social skills gaming group that has worked wonders for his self-esteem and bravado when it comes to socializing off screen. My partner and IWe have seen tremendous enthusiasm and engagement from him during the class because it incorporates his interests so well. It gives him with the tools and practice he needs to build his confidence and abilities in a setting that is motivating for him. If you are wondering how to select the best-fit social group for your child but don’t know where to start, check out this resource from The Asperger / Autism Network, chock full of ideas!
Orchestrating social experiences as a model for the future has substantial benefits for your learner, including heightened self-awareness, improved ability to initiate and maintain relationships, reduced social anxiety (and stress in general), and strengthened overall confidence. Making a concerted effort to model and mentor learners’ social skills can have a positive impact in their lives and in other people they encounter along the way. Without social skills, many adults struggle to achieve fulfillment in collaborative work environments or find life-long friendships; they tend to avoid interpersonal communication in and out of the workplace. As a community, it’s up to us to bolster our learners with the appropriate level of support and guidance so that they can reach a level of independence and find joy in social reciprocity.
For more resources, check out these posts on our blog:
We understand how overwhelming the amount of available information about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is for caregivers and educators, so we’ve compiled a list of our top resource picks that both raise Autism awareness and provide strategies to support learners in need of development.
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