Build Resilience in 9 Simple Steps

Learn how to get through rough patches and bounce back quickly with proven ways to build your resiliency skills.

Young woman sitting on a yoga mat and meditating

by NEA Member Benefits

When you’re an educator, you have to be on your toes 100 percent of the time—even when things don’t go as planned. You may not be able to avoid or prevent setbacks, but you don’t have to let them derail your goals. Resilient educators can roll with the punches to get through rough patches and bounce back quickly.

Resilience is a skill that can be learned.

Stress levels have risen dramatically over the past few years and burnout has become a serious concern for educators at all levels, says clinical and sports psychologist Jack Singer, PhD, author of “The Teacher’s Ultimate Stress Mastery Guide.”

Being able to cope with life’s hurdles is important to our emotional and physical health, Singer explains. A tremendous amount of research shows that people who aren’t as resilient not only feel stressed but also suffer from physical disorders that are directly linked to stress. Stress-triggered problems accounted for 75 to 90 percent of visits to primary care doctors, he notes.

Teacher, coach, writer and leader Elena Aguilar, from Oakland, California, author of “The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation,” learned about resilience dealing with the ever-increasing challenges at her public school. Although she loved her work and couldn’t imagine doing anything else, it was taking such a toll on her that something needed to change.

People who are resilient face the same challenges that others face, but they’re not as overwhelmed by them, Aguilar found. Resilient people believe they’re in control of their lives, are optimistic, believe in their own strengths and persevere. Most importantly, she learned that emotional resilience can be developed.

Building resilience takes work, but it is well worth the effort. Here are 9 tips to get you started on building your own resiliency skills.

1. Shift into neutral

When you feel stressed, take a moment to check your “self-talk,” Singer advises. Events and situations don’t cause stress—they’re neutral, he says. It’s the way we react that triggers the stress.

For example, suppose you hear that the principal wants to see you during lunch. That’s neutral. But if your self-talk says: Am I in trouble? Is she going to pile more work on me?—you’ll feel stressed. Solution: Consciously shift your self-talk into neutral. Say to yourself, “Whatever it is, I can deal with it. Let’s move on with this lesson plan.”

To help break the negative thoughts cycle, Singer says, “I tell everyone to wear a large rubber band that fits loosely over one wrist and snap it whenever negative thoughts start.” Say, “Stop this silly thinking!” Then take a deep, relaxing breath. Inhale through your nose to a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale through your mouth for a count of seven and focus on a positive, self-affirming thought.

2. Create your mantra

Find a phrase that helps you dial down stress and roll with the punches, suggests Kristen Lee, EdD, Associate Teaching Professor at Northeastern University in Boston, and author of “RESET: Make the Most of Your Stress: Your 24-7 Plan for Well Being.” It could be “this too shall pass” or “I’ve got this” or whatever word or phrase is impactful for you, Costa says. Make that phrase your mantra or daily intention and keep it in the forefront of your mind, ready to draw upon to get through dicey moments.

Self-affirming thoughts contribute to resiliency by helping us anchor a positive attitude and remain emotionally nimble, Costa says.

3. Understand what’s happening

“Empowerment comes from understanding what is happening that is challenging our resiliency,” says brain scientist and former educator Kristen Race, PhD, author of “Mindful Parenting” and founder of Mindful Life. She fuses brain science with simple mindfulness strategies to create stress resiliency.

“We all will have moments where our stress response kicks in,” says Race. The key is that we have a wellness practice in place. When things go wrong we can reach for this practice to provide moments of peace that help us get back to a stronger place.

Race says it is vital to recognize what’s happening when we feel stressed. The amygdala, the part of the brain that serves as the integrative center for emotions, is creating a fire that overpowers the part of our brain that’s responsible for rational thinking and emotional regulation.

Breathing can put out the blaze, just like blowing out a candle flame, Race says. “As educators, we are presented with difficult parents, challenging students, overbearing administrators and never-ending state standards that ring our fire alarms, but it takes only a few seconds for mindful breathing to bring our brains back into balance and create the resiliency that is so necessary.”

4. Spread out stressors

Major life events add to your total stress load. Some are unavoidable or beyond your control, but there are many, many life events that we can control, says Singer. Whenever possible, try to spread out major events to keep your resilience from being stretched too thin at any one point, he advises.

For example, if you’re thinking of taking a vacation or starting a master’s program that has classes in the evenings, first assess how many changes you’ve already been through during the year. It may be wiser to postpone the holiday or masters program until things settle down. That way you’ll have some resiliency in reserve if you need it for any unexpected events.

5. Put you first

One of the simplest and most practical ways educators can build resilience is by taking a few minutes to focus on yourself and gather your own energy before you begin your day, says former school psychologist Sherianna Boyle, author of “The Everything Parents Guide to Overcoming Childhood Anxiety” and “The Four Gifts of Anxiety.”

When you start your day setting out to get a certain amount done or focusing on your students’ needs, you’re setting yourself up for a weakened energy state, Boyle says, like driving a car that has a tire with a leak.

Begin your day by focusing on you. “Create simple practices that bring you into the present moment,” suggests Boyle. Be sure to include body awareness practices such as breathing through the nose—the body is always ‘in the moment’ and helps anchor the mind to prevent energy depletion. “The key is to commit to such practices daily, whether or not you feel stressed,” says Boyle, “because they help you build up your energy as well as release emotions that no longer serve you.”

6. Make life mindful

“I manage the stress of teaching by practicing mindfulness,” says Sara Rudell Beach, a social studies teacher for 17 years at Wayzata High School in Minnesota, and is executive director of Brilliant Mindfulness, LLC, which teaches mindfulness to students and teachers.

Mindfulness cultivates an inner stillness that you can draw on when there’s a setback or a crazy moment in the classroom, Beach says. She finds it helps her assess the situation more clearly and act more skillfully.

For example, instead of multi-tasking, which she says actually makes people more stressed, do just one thing at a time. “When I teach, I just teach,” Beach says. She doesn’t worry about papers that need to be graded or the staff meeting that’s coming up after school. “I can’t do anything about those other things while I’m in class, so I give my full attention to teaching,” she says. “I can be fully present, which is what our students ultimately need from us.”

7. Take care physically

Have a self-care or wellness plan that you can stick with to keep your body “well-tuned,” advises Costa. The constant demands placed on educators can be crushing. Keeping your body well and fit helps reduce stress and preserve resilience.

In addition to adequate rest, proper food and water, make physical activity a daily part of your life. Movement and exercise are huge sources of recalibration, and are one of the top methods that help Costa and those she teaches maintain their resilience. “Be sure to schedule time for exercise,” she says. “Even 30 minutes a day can make a huge difference.”

Remember to laugh and take time for fun, too, adds Boyle, because laughter “truly is like medicine.”

8. Reach for support

It’s important to have a strong support system inside and outside of school, Costa says. Keeping your stressors and concerns bottled up may make things worse, but if you share the problem you’re struggling with, chances are you’re not alone—and your neighbor may have some great strategies that will help you solve the problem.

“Don’t be afraid to share your frustrations and seek the advice of teachers more senior than yourself,” adds Kristin Ludwig, founder and managing director of NUBS, an Illinois-based 501c3 non-profit whose mission is to build resiliency in children through stories of animals bravely giving life a second chance. “Asking for help is not a weakness but [it is] a sign you are trying to develop yourself.”

Choose to connect with positive peers who are capable of offering support and an optimistic outlook on your situation, advises Race, and avoid spending time with negative peers whose complaints will drag you down.

9. Start success cards

“When I was teaching, I kept a box of note cards on my desk, each labeled with a student’s name,” says Tennessee-based university administrator and graduate instructor Chester Goad, EdD, a former K-12 principal and teacher. When his students accomplished something notable, whether it was overcoming a struggle, experiencing a light-bulb moment or some other personal success, he wrote a quick note about it on the student’s card, along with the date and time. He also kept one card for himself and jotted down a note when he felt he’d reached someone or experienced a teaching epiphany.

“I did all this for three reasons,” Goad says. To remind students what they had accomplished, to share the student’s accomplishment with parents when he had the chance, and “to remind myself on a challenging day why I chose education as a career.” Others might have used a computer, but Goad felt there was something special about having that box full of successes on his desk. He could pull out a success note at random, read it, take a breath and move on—and that helped him bounce back.

“Tests, statistics and rigor are important,” Goad says, but “educators are not numbers. They’re not statistics. They’re shaping lives and they need to own that and be proud they chose the profession. That is resilience.”