Can the working conditions of teachers impact student learning?

Special educators who experience more supportive working conditions reported more manageable workloads, less emotional exhaustion and stress, and felt greater self-efficacy for instruction—contributing to more frequent use of evidence-supported instructional practices to address student needs.

Key Takeaway: Working conditions may be powerfully related to the day-to-day instruction a teacher provides to their students. Special educators often work with students who exhibit a range of academic, emotional, and behavioural challenges. Special educators who experience more supportive working conditions reported more manageable workloads, less emotional exhaustion and stress, and felt greater self-efficacy for instruction—contributing to more frequent use of evidence-supported instructional practices to address student needs. —Ayla Reau

This paper by Michelle Cumming (Florida International University), Kristen Merrill O’Brien (George Mason University), Nelson Brunsting (Wake Forest University), and Elizabeth Bettini (Boston University) explores how the working conditions of special educators relate to the provision of effective instructional or behavioural management practices for students with emotional behavioural disorders (EBD) in self-contained settings. 

Note that: 

  • “Working conditions are the contexts of teachers’ work, including the demands placed on them and the social and logistical resources they have for meeting those demands.” 
  • Students with EBD tend to “demonstrate low academic achievement and problematic behaviours that impede success.” These needs can be met with; 1) effective research-support instruction “characterized by frequent opportunities to respond to academic prompts, evidence-based practices, and high rates of feedback;” 2) highly effective behaviour management strategies; 3) feedback like praise or token economies to acknowledge positive behaviours. 
  • Self-contained settings are schools and classes that are specifically designed for students who need intensive services to address significant behavioural needs.

The purpose of the study was to “investigate how working conditions related to SETs’ [special education teachers] affective outcomes (workload manageability, emotional exhaustion, stress, and self-efficacy) and reported use of effective instructional and behaviour management practices.” The authors of this study choose to focus on the working conditions of: 

  • demands (i.e., instructional groups, instructional responsibilities)
  • social resources (i.e., administrative support, school culture, and paraprofessional support), and 
  • logistical resources (i.e., instructional resources, planning time)

Analysis of the data collected from a national (United States) survey of SET’s with students with EBD in self-contained settings found that “SETs who experienced more supportive working conditions (i.e., stronger logistical resources, lower demands) rated their workloads as more manageable, experienced less emotional exhaustion and stress, and thus felt more efficacious in using effective instructional practices.” This finding aligns with the “growing body of research in educational leadership and policy [that] indicates that working conditions may be powerfully related to the quality of instruction teachers provide.” 

While the study did have limitations and the authors were unable to find “predictors of self-efficacy for reported use behaviour management practices, and social resources did not demonstrate good model fit when included,” the findings do still present implications for policy and practice. When SET’s feel their workloads are less manageable they are less likely to use effective instructional practices—this would have a significant impact on students who benefit from this research-supported instruction, such as students with EBD. The authors suggest that school leaders and administrations should consider how best to support SETs, in particular by protecting planning times and ensuring that SETs have access to the curricular resources they need to meet their students’ learning needs. They also encourage leaders to provide instructional supports, such as training in the use of resources, in addition to behavioural supports to SETs in self-contained settings. 

It is crucial that school leaders address SET’s working conditions “both to improve their experiences, and to ensure that students with EBD receive the kinds of effective practices necessary to improve their outcomes.”

Summarized Article:

Cumming, M. M., O’Brien, K. M., Brunsting, N. C., & Bettini, E. (2021). Special Educators’ Working Conditions, Self-Efficacy, and Practices Use with Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders. Remedial and Special Education, 42(4), 220–234. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741932520924121

Summary by: Ayla Reau—Ayla is excited to help continue to grow the MARIO Framework, seeing the potential for it to impact all students across any educational context.

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Join the MARIO Family

We are a dedicated group of learners that are constantly seeking to improve the lives of the children we care for. Whether you are a teacher, parent, assistant, or administrator, we give you free access to the most recent special education related research and practices available. Our twice monthly MARIO Memo summarizes and shares studies from peer-reviewed journals, while our learning letters provide insights from MARIO classrooms.

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