The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Gareth D Morewood

Why understanding our own stress matters

Everyone experiences stress, but why does it matter? Gareth D Morewood shares how we can understand our own stress, and what we can do to manage it. 

In light of the current teacher retention and recruitment crisis, this morning the DfE announced their latest plans to set up an advisory group on teacher wellbeing. Damian Hinds' recognition of this crisis could be seen as positive, however I believe grounded ways of considering your own stress and how to manage it would be more beneficial.

As part of my work as educational advisor for Studio III,  I have had the exciting opportunity to develop materials and training on emotional regulation, stress and arousal.

I have previously written about emotional regulation in the context of whole school inclusion, however each session, discussion and conversation seems to have one common denominator: if we don’t think about our own stress first, we have very limited outcomes available to aspire to.

'The vast majority of challenging situations are inadvertently triggered by supporters, and we are often unaware that we can trigger situations.'

Andy McDonnell (2010)

Behaviours of concern and the importance of stress

Stress, anxiety and trauma are proposed as potential significant factors regarding behaviours of concern for young people, particularly for autistic young people (Lipsky, 2011; Bradley and Caldwell, 2013; McCreadie and McDernott, 2014). While we often see the term 'anxiety' used widely in autism literature (Attwood, 2007) stress is used much less, but the construct is much broader and focuses more on transactional processes.

Lazarus and Folkman’s (1984) description of a transactional model of stress emphasises interaction between an individual and his or her environment. Stress occurs when the demands of stressors outweigh coping responses and there is a clear interaction between environmental and physiological events. 

Implicit in this model is the cognitive appraisal of threat, as some individuals will have difficulties in regulating their emotional responses and therefore communicating them (Frith, 2003).  An individual’s coping responses are important in our understanding of stress, as it is almost impossible in the modern world to be ‘stress free’.

It is our coping responses that determine how we adapt to stress.

Finding positives and recognising them is a core element of understanding our own stress

Many autistic pupils have few 'coping tools'. Some restricted or repetitive behaviours may have very real and vital coping functions.

For example, a person may engage in stereotyped movements which help them to regulate their arousal (McDonnell and Gayson, 2014).

Therefore, we need to carefully consider our own perspectives on such behaviour. Interventions that attempt to reduce certain types of restricted, repetitive or stereotyped behaviour because we perceive them as ‘abnormal’ may be taking away a person’s coping mechanism without providing them with an effective alternative.

We wouldn’t remove a wheelchair from a student, yet we often deny young people their own coping mechanisms through unintended consequences of wider systems and policies.

It isn't just a school challenge...

The sources of stress on parents and carers are varied and multiple. These include having to:

  • relate and interact with statutory and support agencies
  • deal with economic pressures
  • maintain the welfare of siblings
  • manage concerning behaviours presented by their child
  • cope with the day-to-day complexities of ordinary life (McCubbin et al., 1982).

In addition to these, unique pressures related to the nature of the disability itself (Hastings et al., 2005) are also important to consider. In their study of mothers of children with disability, Curran et al. (2001) estimated that following the birth of their child, 67% of mothers are unable to maintain paid employment, placing additional economic pressures on the family and potentially leading to mothers feeling more isolated.

This is why joint working is essential and why co-production is so powerful, especially in the current climate where financial and system pressures have a massive impact upon how families and schools can support young disabled people.

So what can we do?

As ever I try to make sure blog posts offer some practical and realistic things that can be done. I previously highlighted that before we consider the specific needs, stress and arousal of our pupils, we must first think of ourselves.

Good arousal reduction strategies focus on our own arousal as well as our pupils. Some key aspects of arousal regulation include:

  • mindfulness
  • increasing cardiac exercise
  • achieving and encouraging flow states (‘tuning in’ and ‘tuning out’)
  • increasing empathy.


As staff and carers increase their own mindfulness, they may become more responsive to each of their interactions with the individuals they are working with (Singh et al, 2010). Interactions between carers and staff may alter after training, and an important first step is recognition of this as a real issue.

Singh et al (2006) investigated mindfulness training for staff and its impact on aggressive behaviours. Behavioural training was used as a comparison; staff interventions for aggression reduced after training, with an even greater impact after mindfulness training.

Increased cardiac exercise

Cardiac exercise is an important area to focus on when considering engagement. Exercise can serve as a dearousing function (McDonnell et al, 2015).

There is a growing body of literature that suggests links between cardiac exercise (Kohl & Cook, 2013) and stress. We do not fully understand the complex mechanisms that lead to these results (Donnelly et al, 2016), however, evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity. 

A recent randomised controlled trial on children has identified an effect on cognitive control and working memory tasks (Moreau, Kirk & Waldie, 2018) and cardiac exercise has a stabilising effect on cortisol mechanisms.

Exercise can have powerful effects on learning and evidence suggests that the hour after exercise is an optimum time for learning.

Three key questions

  1. How much cardiac exercise do you partake in in an average week?
  2. How much cardiac exercise do your pupils partake in in an average week?
  3. How much short-term exercise is in your daily curriculum?

Achieving and encouraging flow states

Achieving a sense of flow is an important component of wellbeing and good stress management.  Flow experiences require complete immersion in an activity, whether playing a musical instrument, completing a complex technical task, or reading a book (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi 2009).  Athletes can often refer to such states as ‘being in the zone’. 

Flow can also happen within social interactions, for example, when you are talking to a good friend. According to Csikszentmihalyi (1990), a flow state can also be achieved when the skills and resources available to an individual are fully engaged in managing an activity.

Increasing empathy

Strategies for promoting empathy involve trying to ‘walk a mile in the persons shoes’, understanding the chaos a person experiences and a focus on trauma and stress.

Often people can understand empathy but are relatively poor at expressing feelings, as opposed to blanket responses assuming that the concept of empathy isn’t accessible.  It is also important to understand that empathy is different from sympathy.

Milton (2012) referred to a double empathy problem where carers also struggle to empathise with people they're working with.  Encouraging empathy is a key positive component; recognition that ‘he has feelings like me’ is a vital concept.

Our 17th Annual Send Update Conference takes place in London on Thursday 23 May 2019. This conference will allow you to take away practical strategies to help manage the increasing pressure on SEN departments, giving staff confidence in effective teaching to SEND pupils.

Secure your place here.

Three good things: using positive psychology

A useful task to undertake is thinking of three good things in life.

Participants are asked to write down three things that went well each day and their causes every night for one week. In addition, they are asked to provide a causal explanation for each good thing. 

I saw this for the first time on twitter. The fabulous Dr Pooky Knightsmith regularly tweets her #3GoodThings – maybe the first point in supporting our own stress should be doing this? 

How much of a following can we gather? 

For there is one things of which I am certain, finding positives and recognising them is a core element of understanding our own stress.

Further reading


  • Attwood, T. (2007). The complete guide to Asperger's syndrome. London, England: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  • Bradley, E. and Caldwell, P. (2013). Mental health and autism: Promoting autism favourable environments (PAVE). Journal on Developmental Disabilities, 19(1), 8-23.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Curran, A. L., Sharples, P. M., White, C. and Knapp, M. (2001) Time costs of caring for children with severe disabilities compared with caring for children without disabilities. Developmental Medicines and Child Neurology, 43, 529- 533.
  • Donnelly et al., (2016) Physical Activity, Fitness, Cognitive Function and Academic Achievement in Children: A Systematic Review
  • Frith, U. (2003). Autism Explaining the Enigma. (2nd Edition) Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Hastings R.P., Kovshoff, H., Ward, N.J., Espinosa, F.D., Brown, T. and Remington, B. (2005). Systems analysis of stress and positive perceptions in mothers and fathers of pre-school children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 35 (5), 635 - 644.
  • Kohl, H. W., & Cook, H. D. (2013). Educating the student body: taking physical activity and physical education to school.
  • Lazarus, R. S., and Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. New York: Springer.
  • Lipsky, D. (2011). From Anxiety to Meltdown. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  • McCubbin, H., Cauble, A. and Patterson, J. (1982) Family Stress, Coping and Social Support. Charles C Thomas, Springfield, IL, USA.
  • McCreadie, M and McDermott, J. (2014). ‘Tuning In’ client practitioner stress transactions in autism. In G Jones and E Hurley, (Eds.) GAP: autism, happiness and wellbeing, BILD publications, pp 24-31.
  • McDonnell, A.A. (2010). Managing aggressive behaviour in care settings: Understanding and applying low arousal approaches Oxford: Wiley Publications.
  • McDonnell, A.A., and Gayson, C. (2014). A positive approach to wellbeing: Applying the PERMA model. In G Jones and E Hurley, (Eds.) GAP: autism, happiness and wellbeing. Kidderminster: BILD publications, pp 17-23.
  • Milton, D. E. (2012). On the Ontological Status of Autism: The ‘Double Empathy Problem’. Disability & Society, 27(6), 883-887.
  • Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow Theory and Research. In C. R. Snyder, & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 195-206). Oxford, MS: Oxford University Press.
  • Singh N, Lancioni GE, Alan W, ASW, Fisher BC, Wahler RG, McAleavey K, Sabaawi M. (2006). Mindful parenting decreases aggression, noncompliance, and self-injury in children with autism, Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, pp 169–177.
  • Singh N, Lancioni GE, Alan W, Karaszia B, Myers RE, Latham LL, Singh J. (2014). Mindfulness-Based Positive Behavior Support (MBPBS) for Mothers of Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Effects on Adolescents’ Behavior and Parental Stress. 

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