A new study from the University of British Columbia suggests that there may be a connection between teacher burnout and increased stress levels in students — and vice versa — causing researchers to believe that stress could actually be contagious in certain communities.
In the first study of its kind, researchers collected saliva samples from more than 400 elementary school students in order to test their cortisol levels. The findings suggest that in classrooms with high levels of teacher burnout or feelings of emotional exhaustion, the cortisol levels in students were higher.
Higher cortisol levels have been found to result in learning difficulties and mental health problems in young children.
"This suggests that stress contagion might be taking place in the classroom among students and their teachers," said Eva Oberle, the study's lead author. "It is unknown what came first — elevated cortisol or teacher burnout. We consider the connection between student and teacher stress a cyclical problem in the classroom."
Oberle suggests a number of factors which could contribute to a stressful classroom climate, including low levels of support for the teachers, which could then impact the teacher's ability to manage their students in an effective manner. This can then result in the needs of students not being met, increasing their stress levels, causing an increase in cortisol levels.
She also states that the stress could originate in the students. Teachers could have a more difficult time helping students who have higher levels of anxiety, behavioral problems, or special needs. These situations could cause teachers to feel overwhelmed and result in higher levels of burnout, reports Sara Miller for LiveScience.
Oberle called the study a reminder of the number of issues faced by teachers and students as the number of students in classes continues to rise while teacher supports are cut.
The authors state that because of the impact teachers have on the development of a positive classroom environment that encourages the social, emotional, and academic growth of their students, their mental health plays a significant role in that. Previous research has found an overlap in depression and burnout, suggesting that burned out teachers could also suffer from another type of mental illness, which could prevent students from learning as much as they would have from a teacher who was not burned out, reports Lecia Bushak for Medical Daily.
A separate study performed in 2014 in which stress was found to be contagious between mothers and infants agrees with the current findings. Researchers measured parental and infant cardiac arrest as well as the release of hormones that occurred when a mother received negative feedback upon the completion of a task. The findings suggest that stress in the mother, which could show itself through a change in tone, voice, or smell, was then passed on to the infant. High stress levels in infants can change the brain chemistry of an infant in addition to impairing brain development.
"It is clear from a number of recent research studies that teaching is one of the most stressful professions, and that teachers need adequate resources and support in their jobs in order to battle burnout and alleviate stress in the classroom," said Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, an author of the study and director of HELP, in the press release. "If we do not support teachers, we risk the collateral damage of students."