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NEA News

Self-Care Strategies Can Help Frontline Workers Manage Stress

Try these healing tips from a wellness expert and former educator.

Education support professionals (ESPs) always put our students first—driving the school bus; providing nutritious meals; creating safe, clean learning environments; and helping everywhere from the front office to the classroom. Throughout the pandemic, ESPs have continued to help students, sometimes risking their lives to provide many of these services. Other ESPs are critical to making the most of distance learning, especially for special education students. But no matter what their role, ESPs are experiencing overwhelming stress.

Left unchecked, stress can wreak havoc on our minds and bodies. To help ESPs cope with these challenges, NEA held a webinar in the fall called “Wellness Skills for Self-Care and Health for Educational Support Professionals,” presented by Capacitar International—an organization that helps educators deal with traumatic stress.

NEA Today talked with two of the speakers, who offer these helpful tips for managing stress.

Breath Work

Retired elementary principal and Capacitar board member Sheila Grady became interested in calming techniques after noticing the “Calm Corner” in several classrooms. Watching staff and students use deep breathing to regain calm before, during, and after challenging moments led her to search for more of these type of tools.

The key is to use diaphragmatic breathing, also called belly breathing. It’s often counterintuitive for those of us who are under constant pressure and stress. 

Make sure you are breathing correctly: On the INHALE, your belly should go out; on the EXHALE, your belly should collapse and pull in.

The EXHALE breath activates the parasympathetic system and brings calm rapidly. If you hold the EXHALE, breathing a few seconds longer than the INHALE, the emotional part of your brain will calm and allow your cognitive brain to function and focus.

When to use breath work:
In the moment of crisis; as you sense a crisis about to erupt; when you cannot sleep.
Students: Before entering the classroom; at the start of the day; before taking tests or doing classwork; in the calm corner.

Finger Holds

International trainer Joan Condon explains that finger holds are the favorite practice of groups around the world. If you think about how wringing hands is a typical gesture of worry or holding hands is a comfort, you will realize that finger holds make good body sense.

Joan explained that the finger holds help manage emotions. “Neither good nor bad, they’re emotions,” she explains. 

We all have them, and they often come in waves. As we get angry, the wave goes up and up and up. Picture a line. Reptilian brain is in charge. The thinking part of your brain is not working very well. Finger holds help flatten the curve of your emotions.

As you try the finger hold techniques below, think of each finger as a path to an emotion.  

When to use finger holds:
In the moment; as a regular practice throughout the day; as you are falling asleep; during challenging meetings; or when watching the news.
Students: While listening to stories; when you notice behaviors starting to escalate; before taking tests; and in the calm corner.

Tai Chi

Tai chi movements can help you become calm and centered. You can do them as a sequence or as individual movements that can be done in the moment. Capacitar offers this video demonstration of tai chi moves.

When to use Tai Chi:
You: As a morning or evening calming and stretching practice; on a break from being hunched over a desk; in the moment when you need self-calm.
Students: As a start of day whole-body routine; as individual movements for “brain breaks”; for balance and stretching; in line before returning to classrooms; to fill any wait time.

Try Finger Holds to Manage Emotions 

In difficult or challenging situations, when tears, anger, or anxiety arise, holding your fingers may help bring peace, focus, and calm, so you can respond in a productive way. 

Each finger is connected to an emotion: The thumb is tears, grief, emotional pain feeling upset; the pointer/index finger is fear and feeling scared; the middle finger is anger, rage, resentment, feeling mad; the ring finger is worry, anxiety; and the little finger is self-doubt or not feeling good about ourselves. Try these steps to help release these emotions:

1. Hold each finger with the opposite hand for two to five minutes. You can work with either hand. 

2. Breathe in deeply. Recognize and acknowledge the strong or disturbing feelings or emotions you hold inside yourself.

3. Breathe out slowly and let go. Imagine the feelings draining out of your finger into the earth. Breathe in a sense of harmony, strength, and healing. And breathe out slowly, releasing past feelings and problems. 

You can also hold the fingers of someone else who is angry or upset. Finger holds are helpful for young children who are crying or having a tantrum and with people who are anxious, sick, or dying. Watch Capacitar’s video to see a demonstration of finger holds. 

Learn More

Watch NEA’s “Wellness Skills for Self-Care and Health for Educational Support Professionals,” webinar and get free resources at

Sheila Grady is a retired elementary school principal and a board member of Capacitar International.

National Education Association

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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.