School & District Management

7 Ways to Reduce Principal Burnout

By Apoorvaa Mandar Bichu — July 26, 2022 4 min read
Image of dissatisfied, neutral, satisfied.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Profession Webinar
Professional Wellness Strategies to Enhance Student Learning and Live Your Best Life
Reduce educator burnout with research-affirmed daily routines and strategies that enhance achievement of educators and students alike. 
Content provided by Solution Tree
English-Language Learners Webinar The Science of Reading and Multilingual Learners: What Educators Need to Know
Join experts in reading science and multilingual literacy to discuss what the latest research means for multilingual learners in classrooms adopting a science of reading-based approach.
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Top Tips for New Assistant Principals From Those Who've Been There
Nurture relationships, learn on the job, take care of yourself—and other key advice.
5 min read
Image of leaders as a central figures to a variety of activities in motion.
Laura Baker/Education Week and gobyg/DigitalVision Vectors
School & District Management L.A. Cracks Down on Homeless Encampments Near Schools, Over the Jeers of Protesters
Under the new restrictions, homeless people would be prohibited from setting up tents within 500 feet of every public and private school.
David Zahniser and Benjamin Oreskes, Los Angeles Times
5 min read
A homeless camp in downtown Los Angeles pictured on Sept. 17, 2019. A proposal to greatly restrict where homeless people may camp in Los Angeles drew protest at a City Council meeting from demonstrators who fear the rules would criminalize homelessness.
A homeless camp in downtown Los Angeles. A proposal to greatly restrict where homeless people may camp in Los Angeles drew protest at a City Council meeting from demonstrators who fear the rules would criminalize homelessness.
Damian Dovarganes/AP
School & District Management Statistics Update: New Trends in Enrollment, Virtual Schooling, and Special Education
New data in EdWeek's statistics pages point to changes in where students are attending school and the services they're getting.
Conceptual image of allocation.
Lea Toews/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion 10 Ways to Include Teachers in Important Policy Decisions
Teachers are the lifeblood of schools, and they should be treated that way.
5 min read
18Goldstein 1126473545