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Ten Steps to Self-Care: The hardest advice to take is our own

Posted by Phyllis L. Fagell on Thu, Jan 5, 2017 @ 09:01 AM

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Even my iPPhyllis.jpghone thought I was overextended. On a Sunday night, a message flashed across my screen: "There's a lot going on tomorrow. There are nine events scheduled, and the first one starts at 4 am. Your alarm is set for 5:05 am." My first instinct was to laugh, and then wonder what on earth I had going on at 4 am. A friend joked that I was so busy, I had allotted time for dreaming.

As a school counselor, I tell parents not to overwhelm their children with laundry lists of activities. Even young students can feel frayed. Recently, I met with a 7-year-old so prone to rage he avoids competitive sports, and a 10-year-old so chronically exhausted she asks to nap at school.

Many of us have scaled back our kids' commitments, yet still have trouble achieving balance in our own lives. We take ten minutes for lunch and listen to our voicemail in the car. If we exercise, it may be at the expense of sleep. Our friendships take a backseat when we connect through texts instead of over lunch.

Self-care may be an overused buzzword, but it's critical. If we follow the advice we give children, we can restore equilibrium. Here are ten tips we can teach kids and apply to our own lives.

1. Know when to say no and when to let go 

We have to be able to recognize the signs that our plate is full, whether we feel irritable, anxious or get headaches. We can make adjustments and let go of tasks that are not time sensitive. Perhaps we can bring snacks for the staff meeting, but can't handle planning the agenda. A firm no may take practice. When we say "I don't check emails over the weekend," it's more definitive than saying "I can't."

2. Water the garden 

We need sleep, exercise and food that fuels us. This seems like a no-brainer, but it's easier said than done. My officemate and I know we should stop replenishing our candy stash, but we hit the jellybeans when we feel stressed or lethargic. We know that kids get grumpy when they graze on sweets, and teachers can tell when students have skipped breakfast. We need to take care of our bodies too if we want to feel even-keeled and energetic.

3. Connect with good people

I tell kids that if someone continually excludes or belittles them, it's probably time to find a new friend. This can be complicated advice for children and adults. It's disappointing to give up on people, but even more depleting to invest in toxic relationships. If we want peace and perspective, we need to surround ourselves with genuine, loyal friends and colleagues. This can be one of the most powerful forms of self-care.

4. Keep an attitude of gratitude

We all take some hits, but we can choose optimism and positivity. We can identify the big and small blessings in our lives, and express appreciation for acts of generosity or kindness.

5. Practice both mindfulness and mindlessness

Sometimes we need to stay rooted in the present, and meditation or yoga can help us relax and focus. Just as often, though, we may benefit from a little mindlessness. Whether we are singing in the shower or listening to music, we can turn down the volume on our thoughts.

6. Allow time to do nothing

We can feel stuck on a hamster wheel, always planning our next lesson or paying bills. Doing 'nothing' can mean different things to different people. It might mean watching a football game, taking a nap or reading a magazine‚ÄĒanything that doesn't require advance planning.

7. Use technology wisely

I often advise parents to have a basket where kids can "check" their electronics for the night. We also need to set personal boundaries. This might mean unplugged mealtimes or device-free bedrooms. When we do this, we capture more than lost sleep. Increased face-to-face contact deepens our connections.

8. Identify interests

If we want to lead multidimensional lives, we need to make time for interests outside of work and family responsibilities. This can mean anything from joining an adult softball team to becoming a wine connoisseur.

9. Make time for family

We can turn any time into quality time. Whether we connect over a home-cooked meal or take-out burritos, go for a walk or play Monopoly, making time for our partners and children lowers our anxiety and increases our sense of belonging.

10. Be a lifelong learner

When we pursue novel learning experiences, we stave off depression and thwart work monotony. This can be as simple as visiting a museum, touring another city, listening to a Podcast or attending a show.


Recently, parents came to see me because they were worried about their son. He was setting his alarm for four in the morning to do homework. As we talked, his father confessed that he too works crazy hours and is perpetually exhausted. He connected the dots, realizing he was as anxious as his son. He resolved to take better care of himself, hoping his example would help them both restore balance to their lives. 

Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at the Sheridan School in Washington, DC and a licensed clinical professional counselor at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD. Phyllis regularly writes columns for the Washington Post on parenting, counseling and education. She tweets @pfagell 


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