Psychological wellbeing of staff in special education: challenging behaviour, burnout, and interventions

Key Takeaway

Paris et al. report high prevalences and complex relationships between psychological distress, burnout, and exposure to challenging behaviour among special education staff. These results highlight the need for multi-tiered organizational support and contextual cognitive science interventions to combat these negative psychological implications and increase psychological flexibility. — Emmy Thamakaison

Paris et al. share their cross-sectional survey investigating the relationship between challenging behaviour (CB) in learners and psychological distress and burnout among special education staff. Factors such as role clarity, psychological flexibility, and organizational support were also examined in relation to staff psychological distress (anxiety, depression, stress). 

Types of Challenging Behavior

Individuals with intellectual disabilities (ID) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may display CB, which includes self-injurious behaviour, aggressive behaviour, and stereotyped, or self-stimulatory, behaviour. Paris et al. found that a high number of participants reported experiencing various CBs frequently (according to the Challenging Behaviour Exposure Measure) throughout a typical week. 

Exposure to self-injurious behaviour (SIB) and physical aggression (PA) towards others were some of the most frequent CBs reported. Several times a week, 38.6% and 43.4% of participants experienced exposure to SIB with injury and no injury, respectively. Similarly, 31.7% and 51.7% of participants witnessed PA towards others with and without injury, respectively. 

Burnout and Psychological Distress of Staff

Alongside experienced CBs, Paris et al. discovered a large prevalence of burnout and psychological distress among participants, as well as significant correlations with the length of time working in the ID field. 

High levels of burnout were found among staff, with 22.6% and 19.2% of subjects scoring above the cut-off point for exhaustion and disengagement, respectively. Through bivariate analyses, Paris et al. demonstrate that the number of years spent working in the ID field and exposure to CB is positively correlated with burnout symptoms. Similarly, “higher educational qualifications and thus more assigned responsibilities” were found to be correlated with higher levels of psychological distress. 

Benefits of Organizational Support and Psychological Flexibility

The aforementioned data suggest that “the longer participants work in the ID field, the more likely they are to experience burnout” and psychological distress. Organizational support and interventions targeting psychological flexibility could potentially help mitigate these effects. 

Lower levels of organizational support (including “role clarity, coping resources, risk procedures . . . support from co-workers”) and job satisfaction were correlated with higher levels of burnout and psychological distress. This aligns with previous research, as the frequency and quality of organizational support are associated with “the impact of CB on staff wellbeing.”1,2

Psychological flexibility, described as “the reduction of a person’s ‘efforts to control thoughts and language over behaviour’ was found to be negatively correlated with higher scores of burnout and psychological distress. Thus, contextual science interventions that target psychological flexibility may “promote resilience to staff exposed to CB” in ID settings.3,4,5,6

Ultimately, Paris et al.’s research provides useful insights into the prevalence and effects of CB on staff in special education settings. With the high levels of psychological distress and burnout found in the ID workplace, it may be beneficial for organizations to provide structured support and contextual behavioural science interventions. Such interventions include “investing in more training about staff perceptions about CB and its causes,” “developing clear and efficient job descriptions and protocols,” and “in-depth [descriptions] of any role-related risks.”

Summarized Article:

Paris, A., Grindle, C., Baker, P., Brown, F. J., Green, B., & Ferreira, N. (2021). Exposure to challenging behaviour and staff psychological well-being: The importance of psychological flexibility and organisational support in special education settings. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 116, 104027. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2021.104027

Summary by: Emmy Thamakaison — Emmy is an undergraduate student at Stanford University and an enthusiastic advocate of MARIO Framework.

Additional References:

  1. Thomas, C., & Rose, J. (2010). The Relationship between Reciprocity and the Emotional and Behavioural Responses of Staff. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 23(2), 167–178. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-3148.2009.00524.x
  2. Skirrow, P., & Hatton, C. (2007). “Burnout” Amongst Direct Care Workers in Services for Adults with Intellectual Disabilities: A Systematic Review of Research Findings and Initial Normative Data. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 20(2), 131–144. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-3148.2006.00311.x
  3. Noone, S. J., & Hastings, R. P. (2009). Building psychological resilience in support staff caring for people with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, 13(1), 43–53. https://doi.org/10.1177/1744629509103519
  4. Noone, S. J., & Hastings, R. P. (2010). Using Acceptance and Mindfulness-Based Workshops with Support Staff Caring for Adults with Intellectual Disabilities. Mindfulness, 1(2), 67–73. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-010-0007-4
  5. Bethay, J. S., Wilson, K. G., Schnetzer, L. W., Nassar, S. L., & Bordieri, M. J. (2012). A Controlled Pilot Evaluation of Acceptance and Commitment Training for Intellectual Disability Staff. Mindfulness, 4(2), 113–121. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-012-0103-8
  6. Smith, M. P., & Gore, N. J. (2012). Outcomes of a “Train the Trainers” approach to an acceptance based stress intervention in a specialist challenging behaviour service. International Journal of Positive Behavioural Support, 2(1), 39–48. https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/bild/ijpbs/2012/00000002/00000001/art00006
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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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