The “ABC”s of Reducing Teacher Stress

Learn the Teacher Coping Model to manage negative emotional experiences like stress.

Learn the Teacher Coping Model to manage negative emotional experiences like stress.
By Keith C. Herman and Wendy M. Reinke
May 2019, Volume 42, Issue 9

After years of training teachers in effective classroom management strategies, we realized that many teachers had never been acquainted with basic coping skill strategies that we had assumed were common knowledge. These observations led us to conduct a series of studies and ultimately to write a book about teacher stress management. A basic premise of the Teacher Coping Model (TCM) is that the best way to manage negative emotional experiences like stress is to cultivate more effective thinking and behavior habits.

Adaptive Thinking

There are several strategies for learning to develop more adaptive thinking skills. Research has shown that people can learn these skills outside of therapy contexts simply by reading a book and doing some of the activities. For instance, Albert Ellis’ ABC model—Activating event, Belief, and Consequences—focuses on a step-by-step approach for teaching people to manage emotional overreactions by arguing against some of their own maladaptive assumptions.

Consider a teacher who experienced anger after hearing that her principal expected all teachers to do home visits with families. In the ABC method, you actually start from the end, with the Consequence, because usually we are most aware of our emotional upset, which serves as the trigger for needing to reflect on the ABC tools. In this case, the teacher would write down “angry” or whatever feeling word best captured the emotional consequence and intensity she was feeling.

The next step is to write down the Activating event. The question is, “What happened right before I started feeling the emotion that I wrote down for C?” It is important that A include just the facts. For example, “I received an email from my principal telling me that I needed to do home visits with all the parents in my class this year.”

The final step is to uncover the Beliefs about the event that are leading to the emotional consequences. Here, the teacher asks, “What am I telling myself about A (principal expectation) that is causing me to feel C (angry)?” The types of thoughts that would lead someone to feel angry about this event might include:

  • This is not fair; this is stupid.
  • My principal doesn’t understand; he is an idiot.
  • This is a waste of my valuable time.

A good way to test whether you got the right belief is to ask, “Is just thinking this thought right now enough to make me feel as angry as I do about this situation?” If so, you got the right one.

Breaking Down the Beliefs

Let’s add D and E—Dispute and Effect—to this process. Teachers are encouraged to Dispute the maladaptive beliefs they identified in step B. Some example questions are:

  • What evidence do I have to support this belief? What evidence opposes it?
  • What would I tell a friend who had similar beliefs?
  • What will I tell myself about this event in a year?

Teachers write down the new more adaptive beliefs they generate from this exercise and ask themselves how they feel when thinking the new thought. In other words, they evaluate whether they created a new Effect. The teacher might still feel disappointed or some other mild negative feeling. The goal is not to eliminate all upsetting feelings but rather to minimize overreactions and challenge some of the more maladaptive thinking patterns that lead us to feel more upset than is useful to us.

Are Feelings Justified?

It might have occurred to you that some events or circumstances might be unacceptable to the individual. We might decide that in fact my beliefs about an event are accurate, and I’m unwilling to change them. Perhaps a colleague mistreated us or bullied us in some and we felt hurt and angry by it and decided our beliefs are correct. What do we do in these circumstances?

The TCM maintains that the most direct causes of our feelings are our thoughts and behaviors. So if we decide are thoughts are adaptive and we are unwilling to change them in a given situation, we have to change our behavior. Effective communication and assertiveness skills are key tools for us to express our feelings to attempt to evoke a change in our relationships. For instance, I might tell a colleague who did something to hurt me, “I felt confused and hurt when you joked that I was not a good teacher. I would appreciate it if you didn’t say that in public.”

The Administrator’s Role

The TCM applies to school administrators, too. Administrators have experienced the same increase in expectations and external stressors that teachers have over the past decade. Administrators can use these same skills to improve their own emotional management at work.

One key challenge is helping administrators embed these strategies in the daily routines of school professionals and create an atmosphere that encourages self-care. Making self-care a priority is an important step for helping a building move toward supporting the adults who are charged with teaching our children.

Teachers will be more successful and effective in teaching children when they are taking care of themselves. Providing environments that support the emotional well-being of school professionals will lead to better student outcomes.

Keith C. Herman and Wendy M. Reinke are professors at the University of Missouri College of Education.

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