Special Report

How Teachers’ Stress Affects Students: A Research Roundup

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 07, 2017 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

New research is helping to clarify how teachers become chronically stressed, and how it can affect their students’ well-being and achievement.

“Relationships really matter for learning; there’s a lot of evidence around that,” said Robert Whitaker, a professor of public health and pediatrics at Temple University.

In one 2016 study, University of British Columbia researchers tracked the levels of stress hormones of more than 400 elementary students in different classes. They found teachers who reported higher levels of burnout had students with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol each morning, suggesting classroom tensions could be “contagious.”

For example, in one forthcoming study previewed at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) meeting in San Antonio in April, researchers from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands interviewed a small pool of 143 beginning teachers over the course of a year. Those who showed higher levels of stress at the beginning of the year displayed fewer effective teaching strategies over the rest of the school year, including clear instruction, effective classroom management, and creation of a safe and stimulating classroom climate for their students, than did the teachers with lower initial stress levels.

Meanwhile, the University of Virginia is conducting one of the first long-term experimental studies of how classroom-management techniques affect teachers’ stress and effectiveness in instruction. Researchers from the university’s YouthNex research center and the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning randomly assigned nearly 200 early-career teachers in 100 schools in three districts to normal district training or training in the Good Behavior Game, a research-backed social-emotional-learning program in which teachers reward students’ positive group behaviors. Teachers who used the game also had one-on-one video coaching every two to three weeks for a year, to help them identify their own stress levels and ways they can improve their interactions with students.

In the first study from the project, which is forthcoming, Jason Downer, the director of the Center for Advanced Study, found that nonparticipating teachers who started the school year feeling very stressed and “emotionally drained” had significantly worse classroom management and a spike in student disruptions by the spring. Stressed teachers who participated in the Good Behavior Game stayed stressed during the year, but it didn’t affect their classes as much, Downer found. “With the intervention, you weren’t seeing dramatic improvements over the year, but you had the status quo. With stressed teachers [who did not participate], you see a dive” in classroom behavior. There was no effect for teachers who didn’t start the year stressed.

“We need to consider the context for interventions, when teachers are stressed coming in and are teaching a chaotic classroom,” Downer said in a discussion at another research conference earlier this year.

How Teachers See Stress

So what makes a classroom normal for one teacher and stressful to another? University of Texas at Austin researchers, led by psychology professor Chris McCarthy, found that the answer depends on whether teachers feel they have the cognitive and other resources to meet their students’ needs.

The researchers used federal Schools and Staffing Survey data to create profiles of the “demands” on teachers, based on: their and their students’ background characteristics; whether their classes had high proportions of English-learners, students with disabilities, or students in poverty; and whether their racial group made up a minority of those in the school. They then compared those demands to teachers’ reported resources and whether the teachers felt they had autonomy in their classrooms. Teachers whose demands were greater than their perceived resources were only half as likely to say they would choose to become teachers again as were teachers who saw their demands and resources as balanced. Teachers who reported more resources than demands (a smaller group), were more than twice as likely as teachers with “balanced demands and resources” to say they would become teachers again and would return to their district next year.

“This is purely about perceived demand and resources; two teachers in the same school and teaching the same kids could feel they have more or less resources,” said Richard Lambert, who co-wrote the study. But, he added, individual schools often had very different concentrations of the most high-need students in different classrooms. “That’s something that administrators absolutely have control over. If I’m a 4th grade teacher, and there are three others down the hall, we all know five minutes [into the school year] that Ms. Jones got dealt a much harder hand this year. The perception of whether you feel treated fairly by your principal is enormous” in its relation to teacher stress, he said in a discussion of the study at AERA.

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: September 22, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)