Less stress, higher performance

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Jeanine Pelican

Photo by John Booz

Jeanine Pelican

Last year was a stressful one for O’Keeffe Head Start teacher Jeanine Pelican. At home, she watched helplessly as a beloved family member battled a terminal illness. At school, she attempted to corral a classroom of 20 high-energy 4-year olds, many of whom exhibited behavioral problems and were difficult to teach.

“It was a very rough year for me,” recalls Pelican, who has been teaching for 10 years, first at a Catholic school, then at child care centers, but for the last five years at O’Keeffe Elementary in South Shore.

However, by the end of the school year, Pelican’s emotional state and those of her students had improved considerably. Indeed, Pelican had learned how to manage her classroom more effectively, work with disruptive students and reduce her own stress level.

Her salvation came from participating in a research project on school readiness that was testing a theory: Addressing young children’s—and their teachers’—social and emotional needs would pay off down the road in higher academic performance.

The five-year study, launched in 2003, provided 94 Head Start teachers with one of two types of support. One group got training in managing student behavior and reducing their own stress, a social worker to assist them in class and direct services for children. The other group got an extra classroom aide, a common strategy districts use to support teachers. Then, the study tracked the progress of 600 3- and 4-year-olds from both groups through kindergarten and first grade. (A similar project was also done in Newark.)

“Early literacy is important, but social and emotional [development] should not be left behind and neither should the stress level of teachers,” says lead researcher Cybele Raver of the University of Chicago.

An early childhood education expert agrees. “Social and emotional concerns should be a high priority with young children, more so than educational and cognitive development,” says Claire Dunham, who oversees programs at the Ounce of Prevention Fund, an early childhood policy and advocacy group.

Children who “act out” generally get less positive feedback and less instruction from teachers, says Durham. And if young children feel that the teacher doesn’t like them, they, in turn, will not like school and will not look forward to kindergarten, attitudes that could eventually affect attendance, she adds.

Anecdotally, Head Start teachers in the study who received the deep bench of support report calmer students, better managed classrooms and less stress for themselves. And they credit the classroom social worker for making a big difference, says Raver.

“Social workers are spread so thin, but they are so critical,” says social worker Kimya Barden, who worked in Pelican’s classroom during the study. “They can tease out the stuff that is going on with a child and do something about it. Teachers don’t have time to do this.”

A survey of the teachers who had the most supports found that 80 percent of them reported social workers helped by reinforcing classroom rules and routines, working with difficult students and allowing teachers to spend more time teaching.

Children in the study have now moved on to kindergarten. Researchers recently finished collecting data on how they have fared and expect to release the results later this year.

“We have promising signs that classrooms [with social workers] are better,” says Raver. “Teachers feel it has made a difference.”

More relaxed teacher, calmer students

Pelican’s road to a calmer classroom began last year when she started attending Saturday workshops for four months to learn strategies for dealing with children’s behavioral and emotional problems.

One that she found useful was redirecting negative behavior. One little girl in her class, for instance, would not listen or sit down for any length of time, and she often cried. Pelican says she learned to let the youngster, who liked to draw pictures, work by herself rather than try to keep her involved in a group activity. Another student was so angry that he didn’t get to see his father and grandmother very often that he became disruptive. For him, Pelican learned to acknowledge his angry feelings. She sat down and talked to him about his frustrations and gave him more one-on-one attention.

Both children, who are now in kindergarten, have calmed down noticeably, Pelican reports.

“I [also] had three or four kids who couldn’t handle circle time, so I learned to let them do something else,” says Pelican, who explains that she also taught them to take note of how they were acting and make better choices and helped them express their feelings in a positive way.

Research shows that across a range of settings, 23 percent of low-income children in urban areas exhibit behavioral problems, Raver reports.

“That means that 77 percent of children are doing fine,” Raver says. “But teachers still have the 23 percent.”

Barden, who visited Pelican’s classroom once a week for a year, also went to the Saturday sessions. “Taking classes along with the teachers allowed us to hear the same thing at the same time,” she says. “It also helped us build a relationship and highlight that this was a collaboration.”

Barden coached Pelican to approach children with empathy—understand where they were coming from, allow them to explain how they feel and then be flexible in her response. Also, Barden says she and other social workers in the study worked with children inside the classroom rather than pulling them out, which is more typical.

To address teachers’ stress levels, participants learned deep breathing techniques and were advised to identify what was stressful in their lives and come up with solutions.

Pelican says just having Barden around regularly gave her an adult to talk to. “I took everything so personally when the kids misbehaved,” says Pelican. “I thought it was a sign that I was a bad teacher, but Kimya explained to me that it was not about me. She told me that most of time, things are going on in students’ lives that I don’t know about.”

And later, when Pelican’s mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer, Barden encouraged Pelican to talk about her feelings and often asked her how she was doing and feeling.

“She really helped me through a tough time,” says Pelican.

More sites in Chicago and Newark

Helping teachers relieve stress was a crucial aspect of the study, says Raver. Previously, she had studied stress levels among workers in lower-paying jobs, which many Head Start positions are unless they are located in a Chicago public school.

“Teachers are caregivers and they have stress and burnout,” says Raver.

And Head Start teachers are particularly under fire to do better and show improved results, notes Dunham from the Ounce of Prevention Fund. “People are monitoring them constantly,” she says.

In her analysis, Raver will report how teachers in both groups managed children’s behavior, how they interacted with students and how confident they felt. Data on children’s performance—from social skills to how they regulate behavior and language to math and literacy skills—has been collected and is being analyzed. A final report will be released this fall.

Later this year, Raver hopes to expand the program to more sites in Chicago and in Newark by partnering with MDRC (formerly known as Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation), a New York-based nonprofit research organization with experience in scaling up big-picture policy initiatives.

Pelican thinks that’s a good idea.

“It would be wonderful to have more social workers in schools,” she says. “Two for primary grades and two for upper grades. That’s the dream.”

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or send an e-mail to williams@catalyst-chicago.org.