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Interview: How Does Classroom Stress Affect Learning?

The Wall Street Journal recently carried a report about a study that found that students are often affected by the stress that adults working with them are experiencing. In a time when education "reform" and budget cuts often seem to be making schools more stressful, this seems like a very significant issue. I wrote to one of the researchers, Catharine Warner, and asked her to explain more. Here are her answers.

What were the key findings of your study?

We find that just as adults' workplaces can affect their well-being and stress levels, so also does children's "work" at school. The classroom environment, particularly a lack of material resources and teachers' perceived respect and support from colleagues, is associated with children's learning and emotional problems. Specifically, fewer material resources and lower levels of perceived respect are associated with more problems, as rated by children's teachers.

How did you make these discoveries?

These findings are part of a larger project examining children's mental health within the school context. We used statistical analysis (multi-level regression) on a large data set of 10,000+ first-grade children across schools in the United States to extrapolate these findings. We focused on indicators of classroom environments and their effects on children's mental health.

How does stress affect learning?

Our findings indicate that stress in the classroom environment affects children's likelihood of exhibiting learning problems (difficulties with attentiveness, task persistence, and flexibility), externalizing problems (frequency with which the child argues, fights, disturbs ongoing activities, and acts impulsively), problems interacting with peers (difficulties in forming friendships, dealing with other children, expressing feelings, and showing sensitivity, or internalizing problems (presence of anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, and sadness in the child). These findings suggest that stress - in the form of negative classroom conditions - negatively affects the way children pay attention in class, stay on task, and are able to move from one activity to another.

Take, for example, few material resources - classrooms that lack essential materials for learning, like textbooks and learning materials, adequate heating and air conditioning, an absence of graffiti and trash are going to produce negative feelings in children, perhaps even a loss of a sense of value and importance. Learning everyday in a dilapidated environment may have negative effects on the way children value education and on their ability to stay on task in the classroom.

The mechanisms through which the classroom environment affects learning are still unclear - whether the stress is passed from teacher to student or students directly are distressed by classroom conditions like a lack of resources. But, improving the classroom environment certainly has the potential to improve the learning and emotional problems children exhibit at school.

Did you see an impact on the level of stress experienced by students from accountability systems -- such as from pressure to perform well on tests?

This is not examined in our study. There is not a specific measure of pressure to perform well on tests available with these data, and this is something that would likely vary as much by children's perception of pressure (at home or at school) as by the classroom and the extent to which an individual teacher pressures children to perform. We do know that teachers' reports of interference due to excessive administrative paperwork is connected to externalizing problems in children. So, perhaps children know they can misbehave if the teacher is not available, whether she is attending administrative meetings and replaced by a substitute or whether she is absent authoritatively even while present physically as she takes care of administrative tasks required for the school. The increased attention to test scores and monitoring as a result of NCLB may place heavy administrative demands on teachers. This may be an example of how stress in relation to test performance is passed from teachers to students. Not our study, but other scholars note that in response to questions about NCLB, teachers cite inadequate resources to accomplish goals, negative effects on teacher morale, and attention diverted from more important issues (Sunderman et al. 2004), which takes the joy from the learning environment. These findings have implications for issues associated with teacher reward systems and pay-based performance related to children's test scores- it's possible that would cause more stress for teachers that could possibly be passed along to students. But, this is not examined in our study.

Is there any relationship between the income level of those enrolled and the level of classroom stress?

This is a complicated question, and there are a few ways to answer it. Children with lower socioeconomic status (income, parental education/occupation) are more likely to attend schools with poorer classroom environments - more stress. In short, low income children are more likely to encounter stressful classroom environments. Additionally, excluding classroom environment from the equation, children's socioeconomic status has an important and significant effect on their likelihood of exhibiting mental health problems at school. However, results did not suggest that the stressful classroom conditions had any worse effect on the mental health of low-income children compared to high-income children.

How are current budget cuts affecting this phenomenon?

I can't comment on this in terms of findings from our study. My guess would be that budget cuts are affecting multiple aspects of the classroom environment, from the appearance to the total FTEs and support staff at schools. These factors are going to negatively affect the classroom environment, However, our study does not compare schools with higher budgets to schools with lower budgets or examine the effects of budget cuts on the classroom environment.

Can you project into the future as to how this may affect these first grade students as they grow up?

No, but this would be an excellent question for additional research - to understand the cumulative effects of classroom environment on children's mental health, and subsequently, the way in which mental health problems in elementary school may affect children's educational trajectories. Other studies indicate that children's first grade experience can really set the stage for their future outcomes (Entwisle, Alexander, and Olson 1997, 2005), so I would suggest that these formative experiences and problems can have lasting effects.

Were there any patterns or insights into practices that are being used to reduce or mitigate stress for children or teachers?

We did not address potential solutions or their success in our study. This would be a different type of analysis. I do think there are practical solutions that can be applied to these findings - most obviously, improving the material resources available to children and the physical environment that surrounds them, but this is not a new finding for educational policy. What's interesting here is that while we so often test the extent to which expenditures affect children's test scores, there is little research examining the ways that material resources or increased expenditures matter for children's mental health. In terms of other solutions, we find that material resources, support from colleagues, the number of children performing below-grade level in the classroom, excessive paperwork, and low standards at the school all affect aspects of children's mental health. I would think that including elementary teachers and administrators in thinking of how best to reduce these kinds of strains in the classroom is a great way to start.

What do you think of this research? How have you seen stress affecting children?

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