The Four Circles of Self-Care: A Tool to Help Students Make Mental Health Everyday

School counselor Kathryn Livingston has had the same bulletin board in her office for five years. It shows four overlapping, different colored circles. Each circle represents a word Level of well-being: physical, spiritual, mental or emotional. “We need to take care of these four circles in order to be okay,” Livingston said at the American School Counselor Association’s national conference in July.

Displayed in his office are four circles surrounded by large, curved letters that read, “Try it” and “Ask me how.” Students ask, she said. “They come in, they’re maybe talking about their grades and they look and go, ‘What’s that?’” This question starts a conversation about self-care practices out of student curiosity rather than lecturing. Livingston, K 2022 Michigan School Counselor of the YearDescribes and gives examples of the four circles of self-care:

  • the physical – Any body type the movementSuch as stretching, walking, dancing, sports and active games
  • emotional – Ways of expressing emotions, eg JournalingArt and Music
  • mental – Activities that challenge your brain, such as crossword puzzles and math problems
  • spiritual – Activities that give students a greater sense of purpose and competence, such as community service, mentoring or participation in faith communities

Its visual model The four circles of self care comes from Know the solution, a non-profit focused on youth suicide prevention Adolescent mental health crises including anxiety, depression and self-harm growth for More than a decadeAnd there’s only the coronavirus pandemic The trend has worsened. Whether they have a clinical diagnosis or not, Livingston says all teens need to develop coping skills to deal with stress, but the past three years have made it clear that many haven’t. When talking to students about self-care, Livingston encourages them to write three things they enjoy that fit into each circle and to try one of each each day. She said students often don’t think of these activities as related to wellness, “but when you make them aware that this is what’s happening, they’ll continue to do it every day.”

Livingston says many wellness practices are already happening in the classroom. For example, some English teachers at Utica Community Schools, where she works, assign students to write in journals. They saw the students continue Write in them every day, although this is not necessary. Livingston said she would like to see the wellness-related benefits of such activities spelled out more directly for students. “We have to tell them it’s important.”

The four circles is a common model that teachers can refer to for such explanations, and it can become part of the classroom or school vernacular. For example, a health teacher at Livingston’s school has a poster of four circles that students tag with examples of sticky notes. They can also take sticky notes from posters if they see something they want to try. Livingston said that by allowing all students to contribute and exchange ideas, the exercise itself can be a boost to spiritual health.

Self-care practice poster
Livingston’s school has also organized activities where students identify self-care practices on banners hung in a visible area. (Courtesy of Katherine Livingston)

When students start practicing activities in all four circles, “you’re going to see a difference in their grades, a difference in their attendance and definitely a difference in their behavior,” Livingston said. She advises counselors and teachers to celebrate small successes rather than expecting sudden, drastic changes, such as a student being on time to class more often than the previous month.

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