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NEA News

Helping ESPs Cope Through SEL

Overlooked and overwhelmed, education support professionals need help managing stress.
educator trauma
Published: 10/01/2020

At the start of the most challenging academic year in recent history, stories of teachers and students struggling with education during COVID-19 are pouring in. What we don’t hear about as often, however, are the difficulties experienced by Education Support Professionals (ESPs). Like everyone else, have been feeling enormous stress during the pandemic. Confusion, uncertainty, isolation, frustration and anxiety are among the many emotions they report having each day.

“I am very concerned for our students, teachers and staff. I am uncertain as to what our entire year will look like. I am sad for what is happening in our community, country and world,” said one ESP in a recent survey.

“During the current COVID-19, I feel I'm on an island. I'm an administrative specialist and I'm not involved in my usual day to day functions of dealing with students and staff. Most of the focus is on what needs to be done in the classroom. This leaves me not really understanding my role during all of this,” said another.

ESPQ Webinar Offers SEL for ESPs

To help ESPs manage complicated situations and emotions, NEA’s Education Support Professional Quality (ESPQ) department held a webinar called It Takes a Whole School to Support a Whole Child: Harnessing SEL to Support the Well-Being of ESPs During the COVID-19 Crisis.”  (see video below)

Led by Chris Cipriano, Assistant Professor and Director of Research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, the webinar provided the 1,500 ESP participants social and emotional learning (SEL) strategies to support them within a school ecosystem. They were offered the opportunity to explore their complex feelings surrounding the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 and learn strategies for harnessing emotions to cope in healthy and productive ways.

The webinar also included resources for building resilience and tips for practicing self-care.

SEL meter

“As we transition from reactive to proactive on our journey to wellness, the compounding traumas of this crisis call for schools to rethink what it means to educate the whole child and invest deeply in the whole school community,” Cipriano said.

Cipriano understands how few people actually know that ESPs make up a third of the entire education workforce and there is a widespread lack of acknowledgement of the scale of their work, which exacerbates their stress.

In a survey her research team conducted of ESPs, they found that most felt overlooked in school reopening plans. They also said they felt frustrated, anxious, and overwhelmed. When asked to take a moment to think about their experiences of stress and frustration at school and the factors that contribute to these experiences, they said those factors were a lack of communication, lack of respect from administration, insufficient time, uncertainty, and dismal wages.

Most ESPs said they had “very little” communication with their colleagues and teams. Special educators also reported less communication with colleagues and teams than general educators.

An Opportunity for Broader Self- and Social Awareness

As ESPs know very well, when stress is not managed well, it can undermine our ability to be effective and can result in burnout. But there are ways to help manage it through Social Emotional Learning (SEL), just as we help students manage their difficult emotions with SEL.

In her team's survey, Cirpriano said educators expressed that they want to feel appreciated, respected, valued, and joyful, and identified their sources of inspiration and joy as their students, colleagues, learning, helping, and families.

To best help students and families, Cipriano said, we must center on supporting the whole school community, including and especially our educators and ESPs.

“During the current COVID-19, I feel I'm on an island. I'm an administrative specialist and I'm not involved in my usual day to day functions of dealing with students and staff. Most of the focus is on what needs to be done in the classroom. This leaves me not really understanding my role during all of this."

SEL training and implementation that includes all of the adults who make up the education ecosystem—in school and at home—must be prioritized, she said, for student success.

“We cannot expect teaching, learning, and family functioning to occur in a crisis without attending to our emotions,” Cipriano said.

She offered several strategies to do this, such as developing self-awareness. Self-awareness includes the ability to recognize and label emotions as the first step in understanding how emotions influence thinking, decisions, and behavior. A high level of self-awareness leads to better self-management, which is the ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively across situations.

“Thriving through a pandemic requires a healthy mental flexibility,” Cipriano said.

She also told participants to nurture a growth mindset, which includes seeing opportunities to control their experience and outcomes as well as a desire to learn, embrace challenges, and persist in the face of setbacks.

Managing the ambiguous and evolving demands of educating during the pandemic requires healthy emotion management, she said, and emotion regulation strategies can help create the conditions for effective teaching and learning.

Create a Healthy Emotional Climate

Self-care is important for everyone, and the webinar includes several resources participants could visit for self-care, but equally important is care for the whole school community.

Educators want to feel excited, safe, supported, and calm. When school community members are sensitive to each other's emotional needs and perspectives, it creates a more positive the emotional climate for learning and thriving. This means incorporating SEL for everyone.                                                     

“SEL training and skills are critical for holding space for safe, difficult, constructive conversations to promote real action,” Cipriano said.

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.