In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, NCSER would like to discuss special education teacher burnout and its connection to America’s teacher shortage crisis. Special education teachers are essential to our nation’s ability to provide a free and appropriate public education to the 7.3 million students with disabilities that attend our public schools. But significant shortages in qualified special educators affect the ability of our public schools to provide equal educational opportunities for all students.
A nationwide survey of schools in 2022 reported that vacancies in special education were nearly double that of other subject areas. This survey also found that 65% of public schools in the United States reported being understaffed in special education. Even prior to the pandemic, there was a downward trend in the number of special education teachers. One study found the numbers decreased by 17% between the years 2005-12. Research has also shown that the number of teachers leaving the field of special education is among the largest contributors to the growing shortage. High job demands without adequate support and resources may lead to teacher burnout, which may, in turn, lead to teachers leaving the profession. Because teacher burnout and general working conditions are real concerns, NCSER has funded projects to take a closer look at this problem and find potential solutions. This blog highlights a few of these projects below.
NCSER-Funded Studies on Special Educator Burnout
Elizabeth Bettini at Boston University led a research project exploring special educator working conditions. The research aimed to provide an understanding of how instructional resources, planning time, and support from colleagues affect teacher instruction and student outcomes, as well as explore how administrators view their role in providing supportive working conditions for special educators. They found that teachers who provided high-quality instruction had a trusted co-teacher, consistent paraprofessionals with time and support for training, and protected time for instruction.
To help prevent burnout among special education teachers, Lisa Ruble at Ball State University has been developing and testing an intervention called BREATHE (Burnout Reduction: Enhanced Awareness, Tools, Handouts, and Education). As part of the larger project, the research team explored the longitudinal trajectory of burnout. The first wave of data collection occurred in Fall 2020 during the pandemic and analyses from that particular wave of data collection demonstrated that out of the 468 participating special educators from across the United States, approximately 38% met clinical criteria for generalized anxiety disorder and 38% for major depressive disorder—rates that are several times greater than those in the general U.S. population. Additionally, teachers indicated that the pandemic had a moderate to extreme impact on stress (91%), depression (58%), anxiety (76%), and emotional exhaustion (83%). The research team is still analyzing all the data from the pilot study.
At Pennsylvania State University, Jennifer Frank is leading a research project examining the efficacy of Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE). In prior research, the CARE program was shown to improve teacher outcomes (such as improving emotion regulation and reducing distress) and enhance classroom interactions in general education settings, but it had not been studied in a special education context. The current project is examining whether there are similar positive impacts of the intervention on outcomes for special education teachers and students with disabilities.
Justin Garwood at the University of Vermont is leading a research project aimed at understanding risk factors related to special education teacher burnout, such as role stressors, relationships with colleagues, and behavior management abilities. Ultimately, this project aims to collect data that could help target interventions for preventing or reducing special education teacher burnout and improving educator and student outcomes.
NCSER would like to thank all our researchers for their dedication and continued efforts to find solutions that support educators and students. We look forward to seeing the final results of the projects described here. We would also like to extend our deepest gratitude to the special education teachers and support staff in our nation’s schools.
This blog was written by Shanna Bodenhamer, virtual student federal service intern at IES and graduate student at Texas A&M University. Katie Taylor is the NCSER program officer for the Educators and School-Based Service Providers portfolio and the other programs that support the projects presented in this blog.