Stress in the classroom could be contagious between teachers and students, scientists discover

28th June 2016 at 12:37
stress, teachers, research

The stress suffered by exhausted teachers could be contagious to their students and have a negative impact on their ability to learn, a landmark study has found.

Students of ‘burned out’ teachers have higher levels of cortisol, the hormone released in response to stress, researchers have discovered.

Higher cortisol levels in elementary school children have been linked to learning difficulties and mental health problems.

Academics at the University of British Columbia have now shown a link between teachers who described being ‘burned out’ and emotionally exhausted and higher cortisol among students.

“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.

In reaching their conclusions, the researchers tested saliva samples from over 400 students in 17 elementary schools. The levels of teacher stress were determined through survey results.

Ms Oberle, an assistant professor UBC’s school of population and public health, said stressful classroom environments could be caused by a lack of training for teachers in how to manage their students.

But stress could also originate from students, especially if they suffer from anxiety, behavioural problems or special needs.

“Our study is a reminder of the systemic issues facing teachers and educators as classroom sizes increase and supports for teachers are cut,” said Ms Oberle.

UBC education professor Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, the study’s co-author, said a number of studies had shown that teaching was one of the most stressful professions.

“Teachers need adequate resources and support in their jobs in order to battle burnout and alleviate stress in the classroom,” she said. “If we do not support teachers, we risk the collateral damage of students.”

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