Coping Techniques and How to Use Them

By Beach, Martha | Teach, November 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Coping Techniques and How to Use Them


Beach, Martha, Teach


Mid-word, mid-lesson, you notice Richard is on his phone looking up memes and Matt's eyes are drooping. The students aren't learning. You also have report card comments to begin writing, on top of the staff meeting after school. Oh, and you've just remembered you need to photocopy today's homework pages. You stammer, your brain moving faster than your mouth. Your heart starts to race, your breathing quickens, and your stomach turns over. The worst part is you've felt like this at some point every day for the past three weeks. You're stressed. The good news is you can learn to recognize your stress response and how to reduce it so you can actually solve the problem at hand.

Recognize and Respond

Stress can be useful: it fires up our brains and bodies. Physiological changes take place (booming heart, quickened breathing, stomach butterflies) as our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) kicks in. Simultaneously, the parasympathetic system (rest and relax) gears up to help calm us down. "When you solve the problem, the stress response goes away," says Stanley Kutcher, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Sometimes we are so overrun by physiological and emotional symptoms that we can't focus on the problem. Often, "stress response can be dampened by our own cognitive ability. We can calm ourselves down," says Kutcher. Ask yourself, 'Why do I feel like this? What is causing it? Is it good or bad?' "You don't have to focus on a leaf going down a river, you can just focus on your thoughts and what you're going to do. You don't need a manual or an app," Kutcher advises.

Another option for decreasing stress response is by controlling breath. "When you control your breathing, you control the diaphragmatic muscle, and when you slow down the diaphragm, it has a huge effect on the [parasympathetic] system through the vagus nerve," Kutcher explains. The vagus nerve "sends a signal that tells your brain to calm down, which in turn tells our body to relax."

Doug Friesen, a music educator and current teacher at the Ontario Institute for Educational Studies (OISE), uses breath as a main tool to calm himself down. "Take that split second to breathe. Remember you're a person, they're a person, and everything is just a conversation. That helps me to focus less on the product and more on the moment," he says. Pause. Take a deep inhale, a controlled exhale. "Sometimes I will go so far as to push my feet down into the ground to have something to focus on."

Plan and Prep

Stress is something Jocelyn Hay, a Toronto-based French immersion Kindergarten teacher, is very familiar with. "Kindergarteners need a lot of your attention and you are required to move a lot to engage all students," she says. Hay often feels run down, especially near the beginning of the year. A large source of stress stems from increased expectations with limited time. "So many things get piled on, which causes me to forget more, which adds to the stress which then distracts me more... it creates a rather awful negative loop," Hay laments.

Hay has developed some strategies: she creates multiple lists in her journal to remind herself of important tasks and she uses an agenda to keep track of events.

Marjorie Navas-Garcia, a teacher in Toronto, tries to plan lessons and activities for the whole week, instead of the night before, to stay organized and be prepared. Hay gets creative with her prep: "I surf Pinterest a lot. There are a lot of fun ideas on there and it helps me plan some crafts or learning centres." She also takes breaks throughout the day. "It really helps me refocus," she says.

Even in the middle of a lesson, it's okay to take a collective break. Navas-Garcia will often read out loud. "It tends to calm everybody down and it gives me a chance to catch my breath." Taking that moment is very important. "Acknowledge that people aren't focused and change the approach," advises Friesen. …

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