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Teacher Wellness & Self-Care

Why is our own self regulation important in trauma-informed schools?

  • Our biological stress response reacts to stressors we encounter in the classroom
  • Our own regulation ensures the psychological safety of our students
  • How teachers manage emotions in the classroom is an integral part of maintaining their own well-being and professional performance in an educational setting
  • Effective emotional regulation contributes to effective classroom management, discipline, and student relationships


Secondary Traumatic Stress 

Secondary traumatic stress (STS) refers to a set of behavioral and emotional changes that can result from “at least one exposure to a student’s traumatic experiences” (NCTSN, 2011) and “the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized person.” (Figley,1995) In essence, exposure to student’s traumatic experiences can make the adults who work with them vulnerable to developing their own emotional or behavioral challenges. 

Children bring their traumas to school with them in several different ways- through their writing, their drawings, behaviors, or (in younger children) their play. By being exposed to others traumas, through an empathetic relationship, you may take on some of the feelings and behaviors that your students experience related to their trauma.

Secondary transformation refers to some of the positive ways in which you are impacted by your work. Caring about students with such courage and resiliency can change you in very positive ways.  While working with students who have experienced trauma might increase the risks of STS, many teachers are personally and positively transformed by their work.  Witnessing some of the more difficult aspects of the human experience can also contribute to personal and professional perspective and growth. Secondary transformation is a process that requires intentionality and has no endpoint. Reflecting on the positive changes and growth we see in ourselves contributes to this process.


The Three Bowls

This is a model of keeping oneself well while doing difficult work, especially regarding secondary trauma. It is called a holarchy, different from a hierarchy in that the one at the top is not the most important. The second thing about a holarchy is that each bowl is contained within the larger bowl below it, so it cannot expand beyond the bounds of the bowl beneath it. This is based on Leticia Nieto’s (2010) use of Ken Wilbur’s (1996) work on holons and the Kosmos.​

​Often we try and fill the skill bowl to meet deficits in the relative well-being bowl. For instance, when a lack of trusting relationships shows up as an issue with ‘communication.’ So we ask people to improve their communication skills rather than attend to the wellness of the relationship. In fact, we need to attend to the largest bowl, our relative well-being so that we can actually draw upon and use the broadest set of skills we have in our skill bowl. And we do that through cultivating self-awareness and self-knowledge and we must balance our skill development with ongoing reflection and self-care.


Relative Well-Being & Self-Care

Self-care refers to activities performed with the intention of improving or restoring health and well-being. Stress and secondary traumatic stress can be occupational hazards given the amount of time and dedication that teachers put into their work. Several professions have some form of protective gear. For example, football players have helmets. Chemists wear protective goggles. Surgeons wear scrubs. Firefighters wear fireproof clothing.  As trauma-informed educators and those in the helping professions- we may not wear physical protective clothing, however, to be safe and effective in our work we need other tools that can help to provide a buffer to the stress and possible secondary traumatic stress that can be a part of the job. For us to show up each day “healthy enough & safe enough”  for our kids we need opportunities for respite and supports that replenish us.

We sometimes have little chunks of time or opportunities to recharge rather than replete our reserves. In those times and circumstances, we challenge you to think of ways that you can create 5-minute or less self- care moments. Sometimes we don’t realize that some of the things we do by habit are actually not rejuvenating, so it can be a matter of reflecting on those decisions. Often when people think or discuss self-care physical activities and supports are the first thing that come to mind, however, we know that if stress can impact multiple areas of our life then we should actively plan for self-care in these areas as well.



The reason why we behave in certain ways or have certain thoughts is because we’ve had past experiences– we’ve learned things from watching other people react in similar situations (parents, friends, people, media, culture around us) and naturally that shapes who we are. Sometimes we have an opportunity to reflect on them and sometimes we don’t. As teachers in today’s world we don’t often have the time or brain space to pause and reflect. Reflection can be especially important when we are feeling stressed. Ongoing self-reflection can help us gain insight by exploring patterns around stressful situations in the classroom and identify the underlying thoughts, values and beliefs that contribute to our own emotional escalation



There are several prevention strategies that can be employed to protect against or limit secondary traumatic stress. Research has shown that psycho-education about the signs and impact of STS can be one of the strongest protective factors against it. Other skills that support well-being and secondary transformation include mindfulness, meditation, self-compassion and deep acting.