Principal turnover rates have been rising, with some surveys suggesting that as many as 4 in 10 principals expect to leave their profession in the next three years. But positive psychology techniques can help reduce principal burnout and potentially bring down turnover rates in the long run.
That’s according to Eleanor Su-Keene, a doctoral candidate in educational leadership at Florida Atlantic University, and David DeMatthews, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Historically, psychology has been focused around the ailments and the problematic issues with human mental health,” Su-Keene said. “But positive psychology is kind of refocusing on some of the elements of being human that are really powerful, [by] enhancing well-being and positivity.”
Through their research, Su-Keene and DeMatthews wanted to not just study burnout in school principals, but also provide evidence-based practices that could improve school leaders’ mental well-being.
“So [we’re] not just looking at how difficult and stressful the job could be, but what can we actually do to help principals,” said DeMatthews.
Their research provides individual and district-level recommendations to show how proven positive psychology strategies can be used to reduce job stress in school principals. Here are seven lessons drawn from their research article, which was published The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues, and Ideas:
1) ‘Savoring the moment’
Su-Keene and DeMatthews define savoring as “the psychological process of noticing and deepening the experience of positive emotions.”
Principals should recognize positive experiences like watching a school play set up by students or having a former student speak about the school’s positive impact, and try to be mindful of the positive feelings they experience during these moments.
By doing so, they can “deepen the experience by focusing and sharpening the physical sensations around that positive feeling,” such as smiling or laughing, according to the study.
2) Memory-building promotes positive feelings
When going through positive experiences, principals should slow the moment down in their mind and try to build a mental picture, the research suggests.
This way, they can savor the memory, both during the moment and over the long-term.
3) Savor moments in retrospect
One way principals can hold onto and enjoy memories in the long term is by journaling positive workplace experiences and reflecting on them.
DeMatthew’s prior research found that while principals do experience large amounts of stress at their job, they also experience moments of pride and joy in their work.
“We know in our work and in our research that principals are enjoying things about leadership on a daily basis,” Su-Keene said. “There are things happening inside classrooms, inside schools, with conversations with other teachers and students that are really meaningful.”
The research found that by recalling these memories, principals can further boost positive feelings they experience from their work.
4) “Cultivating sacred moments” can help
According to the article, “principals often find strength by turning inward toward their ‘why’ or purpose.”
By identifying certain moments in the school setting as sacred, in that they stand out as special and timeless, principals can find a sense of purpose in the work they do.
These moments can be incorporated as part of a routine (for example, focusing on the moment of welcoming students into school every morning), or symbolized with a sentimental keepsake like a gift or a drawing received from a student.
5) Districts can provide cognitive behavioral coaching
Cognitive behavioral coaches work with principals confidentially in a safe space and help them set small goals in working toward a healthy and positive sense of self.
“We encourage districts to have ... systems and people in place that can support principals on a coaching level,” Su-Keene said.
By providing this solutions-focused coaching, principals can “address stressors and feel confident in their strengths and efforts as they work towards their goals,” the research says.
6) Principal supervisors can be trained in positive psychology interventions
DeMatthews and Su-Keene’s research suggests that in districts that provide mental health resources to school staff, principal supervisors should be trained in positive psychology interventions or PPIs.
“We encourage the supervisors to be cognizant of the ailments and the problems and all of the really negative stuff that’s occurring for educators and principals right now,” Su-Keene said, so that they can provide school staff with much-needed mental health support.
These PPIs could include providing principals with training sessions on self care and managing job-related stress, as well as creating a broader mental health support network.
7) Provide spaces for principals to complain
Principals need to kvetch, too. One unusual suggestion the research puts forth is to create effective safe spaces for principals to voice their complaints.
“In the literature, complaining gets a really bad rep,” Su-Keene said. “But it has been shown to be an effective way of releasing some of that stress; being able to talk about complaints but not just in feeling negativity, but actually effectively addressing the base of those complaints.”
By hearing complaints, she said, districts can learn more about the problems principals face and figure out ways to address these issues.