What is Caring Too Much Costing You?

Simply teaching students for academic success has become part of a bygone era.  In the 21st century classroom, educators wear many hats.  We are parents, guardians, educators, counselors, social workers, and confidants to a rising number of students who have been exposed to some sort of trauma during childhood.  Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, include: sexual, mental, physical abuse, abandonment/neglect, illness/death of a loved one, witnessing violence/bullying, accidents/natural disasters, refugees/fleeing war-torn countries, and poverty.  Statistics show that about 60% of adults experienced some sort of childhood trauma. Statistics involving children are numerous.  Below is just a small snapshot of what our children experience:

  • 26% of children in the United States experience some ACE before they reach the age of 4.
  • 4 out of every 10 children in the United States have witnessed physical violence
  • 14% of children have been exposed to maltreatment by a caregiver
  • 2% of children have experienced sexual abuse this year alone and at a rate of 11% for females between the age of 14 to 17.

For more statistics on ACEs, visit http://www.recognizetrauma.org/statistics.php.

Educators are passionate individuals who want to protect and educate every student in the classroom, however, we are human.  So, it’s no wonder when we teach students that have dealt with trauma, we ourselves experience vicarious trauma, also known as compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, and the “cost of caring too much.”  When we listen to traumatic stories or experiences that our students have endured, we begin to internalize the events ourselves.  Lynn Garst, Associate Director of Child and Family Services at the Mental Health Center of Denver, explains some of the symptoms that teachers who experience vicarious trauma may show.  Click here for video

As a future leader, it is necessary to bring awareness to vicarious trauma, and understand the importance of making sure that I build a culture that promotes self-care and resiliency in staff and students to alleviate vicarious trauma.  This must happen before the education of our students can be effective for all involved.  Joshua Kaufman, with the TSA Center for Resiliency, Hope and Wellness in schools, discusses the importance of bringing awareness to trauma.  Click here for video

Support begins with providing professional development in self-care strategies that will prevent vicarious trauma.  According to Emelina Minero, assistant editor of Edutopia, educators can promote positive self-care by:

  • Finding a wellness accountability buddy – a confidant to talk about the day, a person to exercise with and help maintain a work/life balance
  • Build coping skills – be proactive by talking quietly with students when deep down you want to yell to the top of your lungs, track the instructional day to see when the most stressful times are and build in stretch breaks or breathing techniques to help you and students relax.
  • Be consistent with self-care routine – exercising, reading a book, watching a movie, and practicing mindfulness (which will be discussed later) all help build resiliency.
  • Establish end of the day routines that signal it’s time to go home to focus on yourself and family; create clear boundaries that will help maintain a work/life balance. An example would be to write a journal entry prior to leaving for home or create a To-Do list for the next day.

Resiliency training is necessary to keep educators doing what we do best: teaching, loving, and staying passionate about our students.  Everyone has it in them to be resilient; educators must demonstrate resilience and promote the belief that you will never give up on the student or staff members.  Resilient staff have a positive effect on all students, however students who have been exposed to ACEs, are influenced greatly by resilient staff members in a supportive school environment.  So, it’s important to build resiliency!

Resilience is not a trait, but a process.  It’s “how we move on a positive trajectory of success and health in the midst of adversity, trauma, and everyday stress.” (Truebridge & Benard, 2013, p. 66) Build resilience by sharing the following activities:

  • Make positive connections with people
  • Keep situations in perspective; as the saying goes avoid “making mountains out of mole hills”
  • Accept change, it’s inevitable
  • Move toward realistic goals
  • Be decisive
  • Discover yourself
  • Trust your instincts and be confident
  • Maintain an optimistic outlook
  • Take care of yourself

Offer Mindfulness Training to staff members.  Mindfulness is a way of “paying attention to whatever is happening in our lives, inside and out, in the present moment.”  It is like an exercise regime for your mind.  Educators must practice stepping away from “autopilot” mode, which is more reactionary and focus on a different response.  The beauty of mindfulness is it can be modeled and beneficial to our students.  Dr. Patricia Rockman with The Center for Mindfulness Studies, discusses mindfulness.

The benefits of mindfulness are numerous and are identified below.



Mindfulness Benefits

Practice this mini mindfulness lesson found on Positive Psychology Program Website the next time you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed in or out of the classroom.

This is a brief exercise of mindfulness of five or six breaths to be practiced five times per day. It can be practiced anywhere at any time.
  1. Step out of automatic pilot and become aware of what you are doing right now, where you are and what you are thinking
  2. Become aware of our breathing for about a minute or half a dozen breaths.
  3. Expand your awareness to your whole body and then to your environment, if you wish.
The first thing we do with this practice, because it’s brief and we want to come into the moment quickly, is to take a very definite posture … relaxed, dignified, back erect, but not stiff, letting our bodies express a sense of being present and awake.
Now, closing your eyes, if that feels comfortable for you, the first step is being aware, really aware, of what is going on with you right now. Becoming aware of what is going through your mind; what thoughts are around? Here, again, as best you can, just noting the thoughts as mental events…. So we note them, and then we note the feelings that are around at the moment … in particular, turning toward any sense of discomfort or unpleasant feelings. So rather than try to push them away or shut them out, just acknowledge them, perhaps saying, “Ah, there you are, that’s how it is right now.” And similarly with sensations in the body… Are there sensations of tension, of holding, or whatever? And again, awareness of them, simply noting them. OK, that’s how it is right now.
So, we’ve got a sense of what is going on right now. We’ve stepped out of automatic pilot. The second step is to collect our awareness by focusing on a single object—the movements of the breath. So now we really gather ourselves, focusing attention down there in the movements of the abdomen or other breath focus point such as the nostrils or roof of the mouth, the rise and fall of the breath … spending a minute or so to focus on the movement of the abdominal wall … moment by moment, breath by breath, as best we can. So that you know when the breath is moving in, and you know when the breath is moving out. Just binding your awareness to the pattern of movement down there … gathering yourself, using the anchor of the breath to really be present.
And now as a third step, having gathered ourselves to some extent, we allow our awareness to expand. As well as being aware of the breath, we also include a sense of the body as a whole. So that we get this more spacious awareness…. A sense of the body as a whole, including any tightness or sensations related to holding in the shoulders, neck, back, or face … following the breath as if your whole body is breathing. Holding it all in this slightly softer … more spacious awareness.
And then, when you are ready, just allowing your eyes to open and mindfully continuing with your daily activity.

Leaders can help decrease the “cost of caring too much” by providing needed supports to all staff members, especially those individuals who are experiencing vicarious trauma.  First bring AWARENESS to trauma educators are experiencing and START BUILDING RESILIENCY and PRACTICING MINDFULNESS!!


Garst, L.  (2012).  Symptoms of Secondary Traumatic Stress in Staff.  [Video File]  Retrieved from http://traumaawareschools.org/articles/9636

Kaufman, J. (2013). Supporting the Staff At A Trauma Informed School. [Video File] Retrieved from http://traumaawareschools.org/articles/9565

Minero, E. (2017).  When Students Are Traumatized, Teacher Are Too. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/when-students-are-traumatized-teachers-are-too

The Mini Mindfulness Lesson Retrieved from https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/mindfulness-exercises-techniques-activities/#mindfulness-interventions-techniques-worksheets

Rockman, P. (2015, July 17).  What is Mindfulness? [Video File] Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=KQhck3r8YpE

Truebridge, S., & Benard, B. (2013).  Reflections on Resilience.  Educational Leadership. 71 (1)

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