ERIC Identifier: ED414659
Publication Date: 1997-08-00
Author: Brownell, Mary
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Disabilities and Gifted Education Reston VA.
Coping with Stress in the Special Education Classroom: Can
Individual Teachers More Effectively Manage Stress? ERIC Digest #E545.
Meeting the daily learning and behavioral needs of students makes teaching a
stressful job. Although not all stress associated with teaching is negative,
stress that reduces a teacher's motivation can have deleterious effects such as
alienation from the workplace, absenteeism, and attrition. In fact, when special
education teachers are highly stressed by the unmanageability of their workload,
they are more likely to leave the special education classroom (Miller, Brownell,
& Smith, 1995). The ability to successfully manage stresses related to
teaching is critical if special education teachers are to survive and thrive in
COPING IN BUREAUCRACIES
Despite the current trend toward
school-based decision making, many schools remain bureaucratic organizations
where teachers have little control over major decisions in their environments
and frequently work in isolation (Skrtic, 1991). Further, with increasing
demands to be accountable, teachers' work is becoming more intense, leaving many
teachers feeling emotionally exhausted (Hargreaves, 1994). Thus, in school
bureaucracies, teachers may become stressed by role overload and lack of
Additionally, since the focus of teachers' efforts is to help students, many
teachers enter special education because of their desire to help children and
youth. While the desire to help others can lead to strong student-teacher
relationships and can provide teachers with commitment to education, this same
desire can also make it difficult for teachers to leave their work at the
schoolhouse door. In fact, professionals who are empathic, sympathetic,
dedicated, idealistic, and people-oriented are vulnerable to experiencing
excessive stress (Cherniss, 1980; Pines, Aronson & Kafry, 1981),
particularly when they face the multitude of problems that students with
disabilities present. Although special education teachers have many reasons to
feel stressed, they can more effectively deal with stress by using specific
strategies. As such, the following suggestions are provided to help teachers
manage their stress levels.
SET REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
As a teacher, you can alleviate
some of the stress caused by role overload by setting realistic expectations for
yourself (Greer & Greer, 1992; Shaw, Bensky, & Dixon, 1981 as cited in
ERIC Digest, 1989). As part of their preservice education, special education
teachers are taught to identify the individual needs of students and develop
individualized programs for these students. Thus, teachers may develop the
expectation that being a successful teacher translates into the ability to solve
all students' problems (Greer & Greer, 1992). Although this expectation is
commendable, it is not always possible, particularly for beginning teachers. To
competently manage the challenging, diverse needs of students with disabilities,
professionals need to perform at a high level in the areas of curriculum,
behavior management, instructional management, collaboration, and paperwork
completion. Attempting perfection in each of these areas, especially early in
your career, may be unrealistic. Instead, consider targeting one area for
improvement over the course of a year and learn as much as you can either
through reading, completing course work, or sharing with colleagues. You can
also develop more realistic expectations of what you can accomplish. It is
impossible to complete all aspects of an overwhelming job with perfection, so
setting priorities is a must. List the jobs you must accomplish on a daily basis
and determine those that are a priority to you personally and to your
administration, and deal with those jobs in order of importance.
Develop more realistic expectations about what you can accomplish with
students. Reduce the scope and intensity of the emotional relationship you have
with students by learning to see them in a more objective light. When working
with students with disabilities, teachers can find themselves frustrated by the
slow progress students make in learning and in managing their own behavior. In
this case, teachers need to remind themselves of the severity of their students'
challenges and realize that lack of student progress does not necessarily
indicate shortcomings on the teacher's part. Also, realize that although you
care for your students, you can only accomplish so much in a school day. If you
are working hard each day for your students, pat yourself on the back and
recognize that you cannot do it all.
MAKE DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN YOUR JOB AND YOUR PERSONAL
Today, a host of sociological factors, such as poverty, child abuse,
and single parent families, affect many school-age children. Consequently,
teachers are faced with educating students who present a complex array of
problems. Being able to show empathy for students and their problems without
allowing those problems to consume you is critical. "Teachers who become closely
involved and preoccupied with the personal and family problems of their students
may increase their vulnerability to burnout" (Greer & Greer, 1992, p. 170).
When you leave the classroom, do the mental work necessary to leave thoughts of
your students in the work environment. If you need to share feelings or vent
frustrations, set aside a time once or twice a week to discuss them with another
teacher, friend, or significant other. When you discuss frustrations, try to
find solutions to the stressful situation. Repeated discussion about your
frustrations without any solution only heightens them.
EXERCISE PROFESSIONAL DISCRETION AND INCREASE YOUR
In bureaucracies, authority is "commonly expressed in rules, job
descriptions, and work schedules" (Pines & Aronson, 1988, p. 109). Often the
environment seems inflexible at first glance, but in reality the rules are
frequently general and open to interpretation. Thus, evaluate each aspect of
your job and determine changes to improve your environment that you can
reasonably make. Focus your energy on those changes, and leave behind changes
that are not within your control. Focusing on "the possible" increases your
sense of power and control.
DON'T EXPECT PRAISE FROM THE BOSS
Relying on the principal
or district special education director to provide recognition for your hard work
is most likely unrealistic. Look for alternative sources of reinforcement, such
as students, colleagues, friends, or parents. Also, increase the probability of
obtaining reinforcement by informing supervisors and parents of your successes.
For example, keep records of student progress that you can share with others.
INCREASE YOUR EFFICACY
Teachers who have a heightened sense
of efficacy, that is, confidence in their ability to teach and manage students,
may be less vulnerable to stress because they perceive themselves as having the
tools to do their jobs (Bandura, 1993). By keeping records of student progress,
you can receive direct feedback on your efforts (Greer & Greer, 1992). Being
able to observe student progress is essential, as it is likely to increase your
sense of efficacy (Guskey, 1985) and thus reduce the stress you experience.
Additionally, implementing best practices in your classroom can increase your
sense of efficacy. When you implement best practices and see the resulting
student progress, your sense of efficacy typically increases (Englert & Tarrant, 1995; Guskey, 1985).
DEVELOP PERSONAL COPING STRATEGIES
Teachers would be
well-advised to develop strategies to cope with stress in their teaching
positions and personal lives. Research on stress suggests that people have two
basic approaches to coping with stress: active and inactive coping strategies.
People who use active coping strategies are attempting to change the source of
stress or themselves. In contrast, persons who use inactive coping strategies
avoid or deny the source of stress. Active coping strategies are considerably
more effective in managing stress.
When teachers use direct active coping strategies, they directly intervene
with the source of the stress in a way that minimizes the stressful situation.
Pines and Aronson (1988) have identified three direct active strategies that
employees can use to more effectively manage stress.
First, you can change the source of your stress. You can reduce stress by
changing the nature of the stressful situation. For instance, if you perceive
that general education teachers in your building are not supportive of your
efforts to include students, you may be able to work with your building
principal and a general education teacher who is an ally to provide staff
development sessions focusing on effective instruction or behavior management
for students with disabilities and high-risk students. These staff development
sessions could be conducted at faculty meetings or during teacher workdays. By
selecting adaptations that are concrete and easy to implement, providing
opportunities for ongoing dialogue about the implementation, and supporting
teachers in their efforts to learn selected techniques, you can begin to change
the practices of your general education colleagues (Gersten & Woodward,
1990). Once your colleagues can see change in students with disabilities, they
should be more confident in their ability to teach students with disabilities
and more willing to teach these students (Guskey, 1985).
Second, you can confront the source of your stress. You can directly deal
with stress by discussing problems you are having with a colleague or student.
For instance, you may find that you are encountering difficulties working with
your paraprofessional. To work through these difficulties, you can suggest to
your paraprofessional that there appear to be some notable tensions when you
work together. By airing these difficulties and attempting to negotiate a
solution, you may be able to resolve your problems.
Third, you can adopt a positive attitude. When you focus on the positive
aspects of your work situation, you can change how you perceive stress and cope
with stressful events more effectively (Pines & Aronson, 1988). Try keeping
a cheerful, upbeat attitude and remind yourself continually about the aspects of
your job that you enjoy. Also, focus on giving others in your environment
positive feedback. When you exhibit a positive outlook, others may seek your
company, and in turn, you might receive the recognition and support you need.
When teachers use indirect active coping strategies, they attempt to reduce
their stress by releasing it or engaging in activities known to reduce stress.
They do not, however, attempt to change the source of the stress. The following
are a list of indirect active strategies that have been cited in the literature
as effective (Greer & Greer, 1992; Pines & Aronson, 1988).
First, you can talk about the source of your stress. As mentioned earlier,
seeking the support of others to discuss your stress may be helpful. Talking
stressful situations over with a trusted colleague or friend may help you to
resolve problems you are encountering. Often, people find that after discussing
issues that are disturbing them they are less stressed, particularly when they
can generate solutions for the stressful situation. Carefully select the person
with whom you want to share your troubles. A person who can keep confidences and
help you see the situation more objectively is often the best source of support.
Second, you can change the way you perceive the source of your stress. When
people change the way they view the stress, they are taking steps toward
reducing their stress. As mentioned earlier, developing more realistic
expectations about your students goes a long way toward relieving guilt, worry,
and subsequent stress. Also, examine the personality and strengths of other
professionals in your environment. Determining what you can realistically expect
from these professionals will assist you in identifying those persons from whom
you can solicit support.
Third, you can get involved in other activities that take your mind off
school issues. Finding hobbies, exercising, and seeking social outlets outside
of school will help you to mentally distance yourself from work. Exercising is
documented to be particularly effective in reducing stress (Long, 1988) and the
physical symptoms associated with stress. Also, having time for yourself,
whether you are exercising or engaging in another enjoyable activity, is
paramount to gathering your thoughts and rejuvenating yourself.
Finally, you can change your diet to reduce stress. Certain foods, such as
coffee, chocolate, and soft drinks, are loaded with caffeine, a stimulant known
to increase anxiety. If you are experiencing extreme stress, try cutting
caffeine products out of your diet. Also, teachers' diets often overemphasize
refined carbohydrates and fatty foods with an inadequate emphasis on fiber
(Bradfield & Fones, 1984). Decreasing your fat, sugar, and caffeine intake
while increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables may help you feel better
physically and mentally.
Researchers have established that effective coping strategies reduce
workplace related stress. District and school administrators, however, are
ultimately responsible for reducing stress in the school environment (see
Aronson & Pines, 1988). Expecting teachers to better manage their stress in
an unsupportive environment where clear role expectations do not exist is an
unproductive approach to resolving teacher burnout problems. Efforts to create
more productive, caring, clearly defined work situations and improve teachers'
skills are the best prevention against teacher stress.
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