Hello September: here we go again…

Psychologist Dr Lindsay Joyce suggests evidence-based strategies to build wellbeing recovery into your school day; helping to boost your happiness and create a more effective learning environment for students at the start of the academic year and beyond.

Hopefully you’re returning to school feeling the ‘recovery system’ benefits of the summer holidays; associated with calm, safety and kindness, this system should mean that you feel happier and more relaxed. You can read more about the brilliant recovery system in my previous article – After the promise of summer: how to avoid feeling let down.

But, September has arrived and it’s likely to bring with it increased stress. Research shows that the restorative benefits of a holiday only last for a couple of weeks – up to four weeks if you practise recovery every day – after that it can feel like the holiday never happened. Yet, as I’ve explained before, stress itself is not bad.

Short, sharp ‘acute’ stress can be the perfect injection of energy that we need at the start of term. The challenge for many of us is how to experience the benefits whilst avoiding the danger of ‘chronic’ stress.

As we start a new term, we tend to tell ourselves that we’re too busy for recovery time and so the stress starts to build-up. But, evidence shows that teachers who plan for recovery time throughout the term feel happier, healthier and are more effective.

There are lots of evidence-based strategies which allow you to build recovery into your school day; you can even use the recovery system to create a more effective learning environment for your students.

Using your breath

A simple exercise is the ‘power breath’; this is where you spend a couple of minutes focussing on your breath, making the exhale last for double the inhale (eg. breathing in for a count of four, out for a count of eight). It’s a great way to begin a lesson – either just for you, or for the whole class – as it triggers the recovery system’s parasympathetic nervous system.

Being curious and experiencing awe

Curiosity and awe are both emotions which encourage recovery because they give us a sense of perspective and can ground us in the present moment. I’ve seen teachers use images and film to create awe in the classroom – try an extract from one of the Planet Earth documentaries, or images of the earth from space. To promote curiosity, you could ask your pupils to quietly spend a minute studying something in really close detail. This could even be their hand – for example, studying the lines on their palm or the length of their fingers. You’ll know when the recovery system has kicked-in, because you and your pupils will visibly relax and the atmosphere will feel calmer. With practise, you and your students will find this easier to achieve as you exercise your ‘recovery muscles’.

The benefits of kindness

If creating calm feels too challenging, then focus on kindness instead. A moment of kindness creates empathy and safety. There are lots of great resources online for building kindness in the classroom. A good place to start, however, is to think about kind interactions.

Can you try to be genuinely kind when you greet your classes? Can you model kindness in your interactions with colleagues?

This isn’t about forced niceness, it’s about trying to connect with someone and allowing them to feel that you empathise with them. The added benefit is that it doesn’t just boost the recovery system of the recipient of your kindness, it boosts yours too.

Try beginning the year being kinder to yourself and others. Too often I read opinion pieces suggesting that kindness is weakness. In fact, robust research shows that the opposite is true. Genuine kindness builds recovery, resilience and reduces stress. It allows us to think and perform more effectively. It could even be your secret to a more enjoyable and effective academic year.

Dr Lindsay Joyce is a psychologist and a former secondary English teacher. With her colleagues at The People Project, she now works with individuals and organisations to help them to feel and perform better. Connect with her at the-people-project.com.

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