Cognitive flexibility moderates teacher stress, study shows

Cognitive flexibility moderates teacher stress

The interactive effect of school-related stress exposure and cognitive flexibility on PTSD symptoms in educators. Credit: Scientific reports (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-31743-0

As part of their work, educators are often exposed to various stressful events, including violence among students or towards teachers, sexual assaults and suicidal behaviors, as well as death or illness of students or their family members.

Studies have shown that work-related stressful events can increase the risk of developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among first responders (such as soldiers, firefighters, police officers, etc.) and life-saving professionals. mental health, but only a few studies have examined the consequences of stress exposure among teachers.

In general, one of the main consequences of daily exposure to stressful events is the development of symptoms such as unwanted memories, avoidance, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, negative beliefs about the world and mood swings. These symptoms can have a dramatic effect on teachers’ level of functioning and mental and physical health, making it difficult for them to deal with students, parents and other staff members. This can be reflected in teachers being frequently absent from school, difficulty staying focused during lessons, impatience with students and their needs, and difficulty accommodating even small deviations from the routine.

A series of studies conducted by Prof. Einat Levy-Gigi, psychologist and neuroscientist at the Faculty of Education at Bar-Ilan University, shows that cognitive flexibility is an important tool that helps us deal with the consequences of continuous exposure to stress . Cognitive flexibility expresses the ability to update beliefs, perceptions and behaviors according to the needs of a changing reality.

In the context of the school context, this can be expressed, among other things, in the ability to modify teaching methods according to the needs of the students and in the ability to offer content that may interest different groups at different times or, alternatively, know when to act harshly and when to demonstrate a softer and more caring attitude, when to speak up and when to remain in control.

In previous studies among first responders, cognitive flexibility has similarly been found to help protect against the negative consequences of exposure to stress and trauma and can lead to optimal functioning even when reality is challenging and complex.

A study recently published in Scientific reportsled by Levy-Gigi and her partners, Orly Harel and Alla Hemi, examined for the first time the interactive effect of exposure to stress in the school environment and cognitive flexibility on the tendency to develop post-traumatic symptoms among staff educational and teacher.

One hundred and fifty education and teaching staff (85% women and 15% men with an average age of 43 and an average teaching experience of 13 years) volunteered to participate in the study and underwent a performance assessment. their exposure to stress, their cognitive flexibility, ability to cope, and their level of PTSD symptoms.

Data analysis showed that teachers are indeed exposed to high levels of stress in their work and that these events lead to the development of post-traumatic symptoms. At the same time, there is great variation in the level of symptoms, with some teachers showing low or moderate levels, others showing high levels.

Follow-up analyzes showed that cognitive flexibility may explain this variation as it moderated the relationship between school-related stress exposure and PTSD severity. Thus, among teachers with low cognitive flexibility, a clear positive relationship was found between continued exposure to stress and increased post-traumatic symptoms.

However, no similar relationship was found among teachers with high cognitive flexibility. This group maintained a low level of symptoms regardless of the number of stressful events they were exposed to. These findings are consistent with those of similar studies conducted among first responders.

The results underline the importance of cognitive flexibility as a protective factor against the harmful effects of stress exposure within the school setting. According to the researchers, awareness of the essential role of cognitive flexibility as a protective factor for educators may be a step forward in improving teacher well-being and in developing adaptive coping that will allow for optimal functioning in school.

Follow-up studies conducted at the Laboratory for Trauma Coping and Growth led by Prof. Levy-Gigi demonstrated that an intervention combining artificial intelligence and cognitive exercise significantly improves cognitive flexibility and can lead to a significant relief of symptoms and improvement in daily functioning among various populations who experience stress as part of their daily routine.

More information:
Orly Harel et al, The role of cognitive flexibility in moderating the effect of school-related stress exposure, Scientific reports (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-31743-0

Provided by the University of Bar-Ilan

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