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Nov 9, 2021

Building System-level Solutions to School-wide Stress

While we practice self-care, it’s also important to examine the systems creating our stressful environments and find ways to change them. The WRAP process is just the thing to jumpstart those conversations.

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This September, the EdWeek Research Center published the results of their recent survey. [1] They asked almost 1,000 educators about their work-related stress over the last year and a half.

  • 60% said they experience job-related stress frequently or always.
  • 41% said they feel less effective at their job when they’re stressed and that the quality of their instruction, classroom management, and relationships with their students suffer.

The survey didn’t stop at assessing everyone’s stress levels. Researchers gave educators a list of five choices for strategies that would reduce stress. They asked teachers what would help them the most and they asked administrators which ones they planned to implement this year. The choices were:

  • Provide more support around assisting students with their mental health and home-related challenges
  • Provide additional time to plan or catch up
  • Have supervisors checking in periodically to make sure employees who report to them are OK and to see whether they need anything
  • Provide more coaching/support with pedagogical challenges
  • Programming that encourages self-care

According to this survey, the things administrators plan to do to support their teachers aren’t necessarily the things teachers say would help them the most. Of the five strategies, teachers ranked “Provide additional time to plan or catch up” as the number one strategy to reduce their stress this year; administrators ranked it last.

I looked over this graph for a while looking for a way to describe the misalignment between what teachers say they need and what administrators say they’ll offer. Then, I found this quote from Chelsea Prax of the American Federation of Teachers in an essay EdWeek published about these results: “You can’t deep-breathe your way out of a pandemic; you cannot stretch your way out of terrible class sizes; you cannot ‘individual behavior’ your way out of structural problems. Those are effective coping measures, but they don’t change the problem.”

Systemic changes are inherently emotional because they disrupt the way we’ve always done things. It’s important to take a deep breath and make sure the thing you’re about to do is based on what’s best for your school and not just what feels good in the moment.

That sentence: “You cannot ‘individual behavior’ your way out of structural problems.” I have carried that sentence with me since the first day I read it.

Helping people cope with a problem isn’t inherently bad. We should all have ways we take care of ourselves. At some point, though, while we’re practicing that self-care, we need someone else to start taking care of us, too. We need them to check on the systems creating the stressful environment and look for ways to fix it. Regular check-ins, more coaching opportunities, and extra self-care are all good ‘individual behavior’ solutions helping people handle their stress productively. Adding more time in the day to allow teachers to catch up addresses one part of the systems making the situation stressful in the first place.

How do you know if the problem requires a systemic solution? We use the Rule of 10 as a guide.

The Rule of 10

An important part of decision-making involves tracking a problem down to its root so you can address it directly. Drilling down into a problem means looking for answers to all the W questions:

  • Who contributes to the problem you see?
  • What are they doing?
  • When are they most likely to do it?
  • Where are they most likely to do it?
  • Why do they keep doing it?

To know whether the problem to solve is an individual one or a systemic one, look at your answer to the question of who contributes to the problem, and then apply something we learned from our former director, Dr. Robert Horner, called the Rule of 10:

Depending on the size of your context, the Rule of 10 will either be individual people or a percentage. If your context is small – like a small school or an individual classroom – your Rule of 10 is 10 students. If your context is bigger – like a large school or even a district – your Rule of 10 will be 10%.

  • If there are fewer than 10 people or 10% of your total population, look for individual-behavior solutions.
  • If there are more than 10 people or 10% of the population contributing to the problem, start considering broader, system-level solutions.

When we think back to the EdWeek Research Center’s survey, 60% of respondents said they’re stressed frequently or always during their workday. Based on the Rule of 10, I would say stress is a system-wide issue requiring system-level solutions.

Great.

Now what? The best way to build a system-level solution is to go about it systematically.

The WRAP Process

Last month we introduced the first step of a four-step process created by Chip and Dan Heath called the WRAP process.[2] WRAP is an acronym standing for:

  • Widen Your Options
  • Reality Test Your Assumptions
  • Attain Distance Before Deciding
  • Prepare to be Wrong

It’s a process to strategically overcome the kneejerk reactions we often have when we make decisions. Each step offers ideas for how to think about a problem from another perspective, slow things down just enough to expose alternatives, and think through nuances you never considered. 

When it comes to developing solutions to systemic problems like job-related stress, the WRAP process offers some nice guidance for how to get started and what to do next.

Widen Your Options

The W is the first step and it stands for WideningYour Options. When you start to define a problem, it’s important to get a full view of the problem and explore as many possible solutions as you can up front. You know what’s really useful to have in this step?

Data.

These days, you could say with a bit of certainty that the adults in your building are stressed. That’s a small word with a lot of possible sources. One way to start to unpack that stress is to ask staff to take the School Climate Survey (SCS). The SCS is actually a suite of surveys you can ask everyone to take – students, families, and staff – to get to know a little more about their experiences as well as their perceptions of your school. The staff version asks questions about how connected they feel to the school and their peers, about the school’s commitment to student success, how staff perceive their safety, and their experiences with families. The results give your team more information about where the stress might come from as well as all the bright spots in your building where teachers feel supported.

Don’t forget: The SCS also gives you data to apply the Rule of 10 – if more than 10 people or 10% of your staff agree some aspect of their school day is difficult, that’s likely an issue you need to address with a systemic solution.

Reality Test Your Assumptions

As you analyze the data you collect and the story starts to unfold, your team will turn to developing solutions. At some point, one or two solutions will stand out as your best options. The R is the second WRAP step and it stands for Reality-testing your assumptions. This step gives you a way to strategically review those solutions and test them out on a small-scale before you take them school-wide.

One of the strategies Chip and Dan present is a technique called “ooching” (pronounced like OO-ching). Basically, when you ooch, you test your hypothesis on a small scale as a way to collect a little more information about how effective the solution could be. If you think it’s a good idea, but you’re not sure how it’s going to work in practice, try it out as a team first. Can you pilot the idea with a small group or within a single classroom? These are ooches! They’re a great practice run to help you decide whether this is going to fly when you bring it to the larger group.

Attain Distance Before Deciding

The A in WRAP stands for Attain distance before deciding. It’s the third step and it’s a tougher one because it requires us to pause right before we implement. Attaining distance is all about quieting the emotion we have about a given decision. Systemic changes are inherently emotional because they disrupt the way we’ve always done things. It’s important to take a deep breath and make sure the thing you’re about to do is based on what’s best for your school and not just what feels good in the moment.

The WRAP process offers a few ideas for how to do that personal check-in.

  • The 10/10/10 Question: Ask yourself how the decision would make you feel 10 minutes from now. Ten months from now? What about 10 years from now? These questions help you know whether your solution is meant for the short-term or will last for the long-haul.
  • The Friendship Effect: What would you tell your best friend to do in this situation? We often encourage our friends to do something even if we’d be too scared to do the same. This question prioritizes what’s important to us and downplays our short-term emotions.
  • Write a Stop-Doing List: Ask each other, ask your peers, ask anyone: What would you do differently, and in particular, what would you stop doing right now if you could? Align the responses you get to that answer with the solution you want to implement. If it matches, you have even more confirmation you’re on the right track.

Prepare to be Wrong

The P is the final WRAP step and it stand for Prepare to be wrong. It’s hard to think that a solution you’ve so carefully crafted could somehow fail, but it’s important to consider it. When you prepare to be wrong, you’re thinking about worst-case scenarios and putting plans in place to pivot if/when they happen.[3] One way your solution might fail is if you can’t get anyone to buy-in.[4] When you change something about the way you’ve always done things in your school, you’re likely to find someone who liked it the old way better. Getting everyone on board is critical to the success of any change you make.

If you’re worried about getting staff buy-in, recruit your oochers and ask them to share their experience when you announce the change school-wide. What worked great? What was hard? Why do they think it’s worth their time and effort to keep doing it? The personal experience and story other staff members bring to the table goes a long way to establishing buy-in from folks who might not be too sure about making the change.

You’ll also want to plan how to measure whether change is successful. If your SCS results gave you a starting point, plan to ask staff to take it again in the spring. Decide as a team what kind of improvement you hope to see and what you’ll do if you don’t meet that goal. When you have all of these pieces organized, communicate that plan to everyone so they know why the change is happening, when you’ll check in with them again, what you plan to do if things haven’t improved like you’d hoped.

The truth is, making system-wide changes to the way your school works takes time. A process like WRAP breaks your problem-solving strategies into a series of doable steps.

  1. Widen your options to include as many possible solutions as you can come up with. Then, when you’ve narrowed the list down to a couple of options,
  2. Reality-test those potential solutions by asking a few folks to try it out first.
  3. Attain some distance from your short-term emotions and make sure whatever you’re asking folks to do differently is based on long-term impact.
  4. Prepare to be wrong by considering some worst-case scenarios and planning how you’ll respond if they become your reality.

Everyone needs to have go-to strategies for coping with stress; make sure your school’s systems support everyone, too.

1. EdWeek Research Center, (2021) Big Ideas 2021: 10 Broad Trends in K-12 Education in 10 Charts, Editorial Projects in Education, Inc. https://www.edweek.org/research-center/research-center-reports/big-ideas-2021-10-broad-trends-in-k-12-education-in-10-charts
2. Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2013). Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work. Currency.
3. Schwarze, M. L., & Taylor, L. J. (2017). Managing Uncertainty — Harnessing the Power of Scenario Planning. New England Journal of Medicine, 377(3), 206–208. https://doi.org/10.1056/nejmp1704149
4. Pinkelman, S., Mcintosh, K., Rasplica, C., Berg, T. and Strickland-Cohen, M. (2015). Perceived Enablers and Barriers Related to Sustainability of School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Behavioral Disorders, 40(3), pp. 171-183.
Megan Cave

About

Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.