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The Ethics of Self-Care

By Jacqueline Zeller, Ph.D. | October 2018

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As a school counselor, your career can be incredibly rewarding. You get to form meaningful connections with students and their families, guide students to postsecondary success and watch them grow into successful adults. However, school counseling can also be a challenging, demanding career. Given your professional responsibilities for young people, taking care of yourself is essential so you can function most effectively and ethically.

The ASCA Ethical Standards state that school counselors should “monitor their emotional and physical health and practice wellness to ensure optimal professional effectiveness.” And, “School counselors seek physical or mental health support when needed to ensure professional competence.”

Our K–12 students often look to us and other school staff to model how to deal with challenging situations. We can also help graduate students recognize the importance of self-care for school counselors and model how to balance the multiple demands of the school counselor’s role.

Warning Signs and Vulnerabilities

When you’re able to recognize vulnerabilities connected to your role and warning signs that stress might be negatively affecting your work, you’ll be better prepared – to take action should you need support, to re-evaluate your self-care plan and to maintain your ethical practice.

As a school counselor, you may experience burnout, vicarious traumatization and compassion fatigue associated with hearing emotionally difficult stories and dealing with others’ needs every day. Burnout signs include physical and/or mental exhaustion, loss of interest in your work and your co-workers and/or feeling overly negative about your job. If you’re feeling unable to be sympathetic with students or experiencing intrusive imagery in response to hearing about traumatic experiences, these are warning signs of compassion fatigue and/or vicarious traumatization. Such experiences often initially develop because you’re working with students with high emotional needs and you care about helping those students. However, if left unaddressed, burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious traumatization can impair your work.

Following are some suggestions for practicing self-care.

Supporting emotional wellness: Practicing gratitude, such as journaling or regularly listing what you’re grateful for, can go a long way in supporting your emotional wellness. Consider focusing on specific aspects of your work as a school counselor that you’re grateful for, such as forming positive connections with students, promoting students’ social/emotional wellness or helping students successfully transition to postsecondary options. Focusing on the most motivating aspects of your job can give you a helpful reminder of why you do this important work, particularly on more challenging days.

Consider practicing gratitude on a regular basis by ending each school day with a reflection on a part of your day when you felt most helpful, effective or positive about your role. Journaling or practicing gratitude doesn’t have to be an onerous task. It may be as simple as writing down one sentence each day about something that went well or thinking about your daily successes on your commute home. You may want to look into bullet journaling to capture your thoughts and gratitude quickly. Don’t make practicing gratitude such a time-consuming task that it’s yet one more thing on your to-do list stressing you out.

Similarly, practicing mindfulness, even for a brief period, can be useful. The exciting business of the school day can make your job challenging if there isn’t room to take a break. Even taking short breathing breaks to focus on the present moment can help center your thinking and awareness during the school day so you can better focus on your duties. Practicing self-compassion, keeping appropriate boundaries and recognizing when you need support from colleagues and other professionals are useful strategies to cope with challenging aspects of your work.

Fostering relationships: To address potential isolation, incorporate regular consultation and supervision into your schedule. Holding the weight of difficult situations or stories alone can harm your emotional health. Consultation and supervision also help you perform more thoughtfully and ethically in your role. Of course, you need to address confidentiality issues appropriately, but putting systems in place so you have outlets to discuss difficult cases and make more informed decisions both supports your self-care and improves your work as a school counselor.

Fostering professional relationships is also important so you’re better equipped to get perspective from a colleague or supervisor should you experience difficult imagery or be personally triggered in response to a particular case. This consultation can help you recognize your own blind spots and get your own counseling or supports when needed.

Furthermore, all professionals have areas where they might benefit from more professional development or consultation. Recognizing those areas and seeking out opportunities for professional growth and collaboration help you practice more ethically and perform more effectively. For example, advocating for a particular professional education opportunity might help you feel more equipped to support your school population, while also bolstering your energy and excitement for your career.

Physical health: Staying active also goes a long way toward good self-care. Take a short walk during the school day if you can fit it into your schedule, or make time for some physical activity before you transition from work to home. Take a few moments to enjoy nature and the world around you. Just like practicing gratitude, physical activity shouldn’t be onerous. You don’t need to train for a marathon or become a champion weight lifter. Find something you enjoy doing, be it walking, riding a bike, swimming, hula hooping, skating or countless other ways to be active while having fun. Being mindful about your eating or scheduling a healthy lunch with a colleague during the school week can also support your physical health and feeling of connectedness.

Outside of work: Connecting with your loved ones and strengthening relationships with friends outside of work also helps with self-care. Practice leisure activities that make you happy or calm, and prioritize those leisure activities in your regular schedule. For some people, leisure might mean yoga; for others, it might mean painting or going to the movies. Make time for whatever fuels positive feelings in you.

Self-care will look different from person to person. What works for your best friend may not work for you. Making your own self-care plan helps you set personal goals and monitor those goals. Consider how you might integrate a variety of self-care and wellness practices into your regular schedule. How can you include self-care in your work day? How will you integrate it at home or outside of work? What are your self-care strategies within different categories of wellness?

Remember, when self-care is most effectively practiced, it isn’t just in response to stressful experiences, and it isn’t about waiting to practice self-care until the summer when you’re off work or less busy. Practicing self-care is a year-round necessity. You know what they say – put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.

Jacqueline Zeller, Ph.D., is part of the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s prevention science and practice/CAS in counseling program. She can be reached at