For the study, the team collected saliva samples from over 400 elementary school children and tested their cortisol levels. The findings showed that classrooms in which teachers experienced more burnout, or feelings of emotional exhaustion, the cortisol levels in students were also elevated.
‘Classrooms in which teachers experience more burnout, or feelings of emotional exhaustion, the cortisol levels in students are also elevated.’
Higher cortisol levels in elementary school children have been linked to learning difficulties as well as mental health problems. "This suggests that stress contagion might be taking place in the classroom among students and their teachers," said lead author Eva Oberle, Assistant Professor at University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada.
A stressful classroom climate could be a result of inadequate support for teachers, which may impact teachers' ability to effectively manage their students. A poorly managed classroom can contribute to students' needs not being met and increasing stress. This could be reflected in elevated cortisol levels in students.
"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 said. Alternatively, stress could originate from students, who may be more challenging to teach because of increases in anxiety, behavioural problems, or special needs. In this scenario, teachers could feel overwhelmed and report higher levels of burnout.
"Our study is a reminder of the systemic issues facing teachers and educators as classroom sizes increase and supports for teachers are cut," Oberle added. "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," noted Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, professor at UBC.
"If we do not support teachers, we risk the collateral damage of students," Reichl commented. For the study, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, the team carried out a survey of students in grade four to seven classrooms at 17 public schools.