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Published on: August 19, 2021

Special education teachers are at heightened risk for stress and burnout, which negatively impacts their effectiveness and well-being. With a new five-year, $4 million grant from the Institute of Educational Sciences, Penn State and Georgia State University (GSU) researchers are teaming up with school districts in Georgia to develop and test an adaptation of the Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE) professional development program to support special education teachers.

More than 220 special education teachers in elementary schools in the metropolitan Atlanta area will participate in a study involving three days of CARE training to practice skills such as mindfulness, caring and compassion for themselves and others, and managing classroom stress. They will also participate in monthly virtual check-in meetings during the school year.

"Special educators may experience stress from working across grade levels in a variety of classrooms. They often have a massive paperwork load and many meetings on top of working with their students," said Jennifer Frank, Penn State associate professor of education, Social Science Research Institute cofunded faculty member and primary investigator on the project. "They often deal with challenging student behaviors and, in some cases, may even be afraid of verbal or physical abuse by students."

In addition to measuring teacher, student and classroom outcomes, the study will determine the cost-effectiveness of the CARE program in a special education setting. Frank suggested that reducing burnout could lead to more special education teachers staying in the profession, benefiting both students and the school system.

The CARE program has led to more emotionally positive classrooms and improved emotional regulation and physical health for teachers, according to a previous study conducted by the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, University of Virginia and Fordham University. Elementary school teachers participating in the study also reported feeling less rushed and less overwhelmed by paperwork.

"CARE recognizes that teacher functioning is central to an effective, warm, and responsive classroom," said Andrew Roach, GSU associate professor of school psychology and the project's co-principal investigator. "Addressing teachers' emotional awareness, resilience and well-being is important because they serve as a support and model for the children they're working with."

Roach emphasized the benefits of self-compassion for teachers.

"I wish I had training like CARE when I was an elementary school teacher," he said. "Teachers have high aspirations about making a difference for children, and we can be really hard on ourselves when we fall short. To enable teachers to get back up and be compassionate with kids is a huge contribution we can make."

"With this project, we hope to help create an environment of compassion for our fellow human beings, whether it's for teachers, students, administrators, colleagues or parents," Frank added.

The research team is partnering with Mark Greenberg and Christa Turksma of CREATE for Education, the nonprofit organization that markets and implements the CARE program. To adapt the CARE program to the needs of special education teachers, the researchers will consult with Bonnie Billingsley, professor of education at Virginia Tech. Tamika La Salle, associate professor of school psychology at the University of Connecticut, will advise the team on culturally responsive education practices. Patricia Jennings, professor of education at the University of Virginia and lead developer of the CARE program, will also consult on the project.

Co-investigators on the project are Deb Schussler, Penn State associate professor of education; Damon Jones, Penn State associate professor of health and human development; and Emily Graybill, GSU clinical associate professor and director of the Center for Leadership in Disability. Penn State graduate research fellows Sebrina Doyle, Marisa DeCollibus, Catherine Jantzer and Joseph Brandenburg will contribute to the project. Center for Leadership in Disability staff members Molly Tucker and Sonia Sanchez-Alverez and GSU graduate students Jhanelle Adams, Joanna Satterwhite and Jonathan Nguyen will also contribute to the project.