Coping with Stress in Special Education Classroom: Can Individual Teachers More Effectively Manage Stress?

By Brownell, Mary | Teaching Exceptional Children, September/October 1997 | Go to article overview

Coping with Stress in Special Education Classroom: Can Individual Teachers More Effectively Manage Stress?


Brownell, Mary, Teaching Exceptional Children


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 the classroom.

Coping in Bureaucracies

Despite the current trend toward schoolbased 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 autonomy. 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.

Also, 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. …

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