UO, OHSU work to prevent special education teacher burnout

Researchers at the College of Education and Oregon Health and Science University are collaborating to address stress and burnout among special education teachers, especially as educators transition to online teaching.

The goal of “Project Resilience: A Neurological and Psychosocial Collaborative to Prevent Occupational Burnout of K-12 Educators” is to develop a better understanding of risk factors associated with burnout that can be identified prior to entering the field.

“We are committed to finding approaches to address prevention, rather than crisis-oriented responses,” said Chris Knowles, a research associate professor in the College of Education.

As a former special education teacher for students with emotional and behavioral challenges, Knowles has first-hand knowledge of the effects of working in such a demanding job.

Knowles, John Seeley, James Sinclair, Kate Bromley, Paulina Whitehat and Carolyn Griffith represent the University of Oregon in the project, while Alexander Stevens, David Lahna and Barry Oken represent OHSU. 

Educators report that feeling high levels of stress can lead to leaving the field. Teachers with high stress and low coping abilities are associated with poorer student outcomes than teachers with low stress and better coping abilities.

Also, experiences of burnout are often associated with poor classroom environments and challenging student behavior. This is known as the “burnout cascade,” which occurs in three phases: emotional exhaustion, de-personalization and the feeling of a lack of accomplishment in one’s work.

“Given these findings, there is an urgent need to identify strategies to prevent or ameliorate teacher burnout in order to improve occupational well-being and reduce the epidemic of teacher attrition,” Knowles said.

The team recently received a grant to support the development and design of a collaborative research plan. The team has collected exploratory data from special education teachers and graduate students.

Researchers are using a mixed-methods approach to analyze the data to learn about the phenomena of stress and burnout with attention to changes in education brought about by COVID-19. Though the data is still being analyzed, COVID-19 appears to have brought incredible changes in teaching demands.

“Based on initial findings, it appears that the causes of stress have dramatically changed for teachers during the rapid transition to providing online instruction,” Knowles said.

Research into teacher burnout has only been conducted within the past 10 years. Proposed strategies to address burnout, like mindfulness meditation and development of classroom management, have had relatively little effect on attrition.

The biological and neurological aspect of teacher burnout, however, has not been studied extensively. The research group proposes that investigating teacher burnout at both a biological/neurobiological and psychosocial level could offer a more comprehensive understanding of which prevention methods can be developed.

“Our end goal is to use a variety of measures to identify risk and protective factors for burnout in special education teachers,” Knowles said.

By identifying factors that could potentially cause burnout, special education licensure programs can identify education students who could benefit from additional support to manage stress prior to entering the job market.

Once additional research questions have been identified, the team will apply for more funding to conduct a pilot study, solidify a proof of concept and produce further publications that will be meaningful to education professionals.

“Additional funding for this project will allow us to develop innovative and novel lines of research that capitalize on the strengths of the behavioral neuroscience program at OHSU and the Department of Special Education and Clinical Sciences in the College of Education at the UO,” Knowles said.

By Meghan Mortensen, College of Education