Brain science strategies to aid educator wellness - SmartBrief

All Articles Education Educational Leadership Brain science strategies to aid educator wellness

Brain science strategies to aid educator wellness

Feeling emotionally drained after the recent pandemic and school upheaval? Quick physiological tactics can ramp up educator wellness.

5 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

glowing brain educator wellness

Natasha Connell/Unsplash

Politics, divisiveness and the challenges our society faces from COVID-19 repercussions have put teachers and other educators in challenging situations and are draining our ability to invest time and energy into supporting others. But we cannot support our students, colleagues and families if we don’t first take care of ourselves. This is not selfish; it is practical. 

As a middle-school principal, I have gained a newfound appreciation for self-care over the past two years. Some of the best practices I have researched and learned about include time-tested strategies based in science that leverage technology to affect the mind and body. Educators and students alike can try these.

Binaural beats for educator wellness

michael gaskellOne of my favorite tools that help trigger a better state of mind is an intriguingly futuristic, mind-body,  sci-fi concept called binaural beats. It’s quite simply the practice of listening to two different sounds with headphones, optimized to auditory nerves that are at different frequencies in either ear. Considering its profound and quick impact, it is well worth employing.

By listening to these pulsing sounds at two different frequencies, the brain adapts and perceives a third sound. Flooding the synapses with this soundwave pattern in a targeted and precise manner tweaks a specific part of the brain. Listening to this higher-tech version of white noise has been shown to improve alertness, attention, orientation, working memory, and cognitive and perceptual performances. That can rejuvenate you in terms of productivity and wellness. 

When I need to feel the fulfillment of deep work satisfaction and wellness, I pop on my earphones and play away. You can use apps or websites that feature the distinctive beats. Researchers have noted effects in some people after three to five minutes, but I’ve found it’s most optimal to aim for about two to three hours maintaining a flow state. You can’t teach a class while listening, but you can do paperwork or listen while sleeping. (Learn more about binaural beats and the frequency patterns on the internet.)

Focused breathing works quickly

I have also found that breathing techniques, such as the 4-7-8 method, are ideal for helping me optimize my psychological wellness and manage my stress points. I like 4-7-8 simply because it is so easy to remember: Breathe in deeply for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, exhale slowly for eight seconds and repeat. The difference in timing has a therapeutic effect that essentially massages your diaphragm and calms your nervous system. Keep it up for several minutes to maximize the effect. 

The breathing technique can be performed between classes or even during a meeting (but only one you are attending rather than leading!). If you are like me, you are busy and may not have the luxury of extended meditative time. Breathing techniques like 4-7-8 can induce calm in a short, practical, on-site way. Various online videos can help you get used to the pattern.

Positive, third-person self-talk 

This type of self-talk puts a twist on the typical affirmation that can help build confidence or de-stress — and both can enhance educator wellness. Third-person self-talk has been shown to help adults and children work through struggles and to benefit from getting out of their comfort zone. It can help vulnerable students strengthen their management of feelings to solidify their response to distress/anxiety. 

Instead of affirmations using “I,” you (or your student) would refer to yourself in the third person: “Michael just needs to relax for a minute, and then he can speak.” 

The process is based on perception distance, suggesting that by removing yourself one step from the issue at hand, it’s less personal, and you’ll have more success internalizing the affirmation.

Maintain a praise-to-criticism ratio

Encouragement is key to feeling and performing better, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s widely known that encouragement works best when it balances or, better yet, outweighs criticism. Therapist and researcher John Gottman long ago pinpointed the best ratio of praise to criticism for ideal relationships: 5 to 1

Vanderbilt University researchers who focused specifically on children in the classroom put it at 4 to 1 (PDF). For each negative, a person needs to hear four or five positive comments. “Praise is a powerful tool for educators. When used effectively in the classroom, it can increase the social and academic performance of students, as well as improve classroom climate,” the Vanderbilt Tennessee Behavior Supports Project notes. 

The internet is filled with examples of praise for children.  

Story therapy

Immersing students in a story so they feel as if they are living it is called story therapy. “Stories are inherently hypnotic in that they fixate attention and appeal to the imagination. This makes story therapy the perfect device for delivering fresh patterns of hope as well as more specific suggestions for change,” psychotherapy trainer Mark Tyrrell writes. 

Targeting physiological wellness that balances your brain state is practical and enticing. Educators who arm themselves with a few tools to guide their mind can benefit from adjusting their state of mind quickly. The additional benefit is the joy of teaching our students how to harness their minds with pragmatic, technology-oriented methods like binaural beats and prompted breathing. 

We all have our own preferences, and some people may not be comfortable with these edcuator wellness strategies. But consider trying these and other practices. Our own self-care must come first so we are better able to care for the students in our charge and the people in our personal lives. That is not selfish, it is sensible!

Michael Gaskell, Ph.D., is a veteran principal in New Jersey currently working at Hammarskjold Middle School in East Brunswick.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


Subscribe to SmartBrief’s FREE email ASCD newsletter to see the latest hot topics in education. It’s among SmartBrief’s more than 250 industry-focused newsletters.