EXPERIENCES, PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTRESS AND COPING AMONG TEACHERS OF STUDENTS WITH LEARNING DIFFICULTIES

0
387

CHAPTER ONE INTRODUCTION

Overview

Most occupations involving human services have been found to be demanding, however, teaching has been ranked to be one of the most demanding professions (Kyriacou, 2001; Montgomery & Rupp, 2005; Walker, 2018) with majority of basic school teachers experiencing a high level of stress (Herman, Hickmon-Rosa, & Reinke, 2018). Different teachers experience different challenges, demands and benefits and these are dependent on the educational level of students being taught, the diversity of students’ educational needs and the type of school they work in (Kokkinos & Davazoglou, 2009). The level of stress associated with teaching could also stem from high expectations from supervisors, colleague teachers, students and parents. This is further complicated by student misbehavior, work overload, a lack of acknowledgement for achievements (Greenglass & Burke, 2003) and time pressures (Kyriacou, 2001). Classroom factors such as workload of teachers and students’ behavior problems have been found to be contributory factors to the distress teachers experience (Klassen & Chiu, 2010).

A teacher’s responsibility goes beyond teaching; this is just a part of the role (Schools Courses & Career Development, 2017). Teaching involves several aspects and roles such as preparation and planning, behavior management (SCCD, 2017; Kelly-Peterson, 2010) assessing, designing and modifying tasks, making use of curriculum, as well as supporting parents and families (Kelly-Peterson, 2010) and other specialized responsibilities such as being assistants at school functions, interior designers in the classroom, watchers at lunch and helping as fundraisers for school trips and school provisions (SCCD, 2017).

Most elementary school teachers teach several subjects to a class of diverse groups of students (Antoniou & Kyriakides, 2013; Kaur, 2001) and in some cases the class size is large. Teaching large class sizes which is usually the case in most urban public schools in Ghana (Osei, 2006) can be associated with additional distress. Research suggests that teacher distress and organization demands increase with large class sizes (Schanzenbach, 2014; Jin, Yeung, Tang & Low, 2008) which are mostly characterized by students’ behavioral problems (Osei, 2006). Teachers are also responsible for producing productive members of society out of the children in their classrooms. Again, teachers are likely to have high distress levels in the face of rules, regulations, guidelines and performance expectations (Stauffer & Mason, 2013; Burchielli & Bartram, 2006).

The demanding nature of the job suggests that there is no end to it. As a result, teachers often take unfinished work home to prepare for the next class session (Holmes, 2005). In addition, many teachers no longer look forward to the traditional vacation break because most schools organize vacation classes during this period suggesting nearly a year long school session with a short vacation built in (Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2015; Liu & Onwuegbuzie, 2014; Kaur, 2001). Even during these vacations some teachers do not take a leave, rather, they take on another job of teaching either in the same school or in another facility due to low salaries. All these activities emphasize that working days at school are demanding and provide inadequate time for rest (Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2015). Despite the demanding (hectic) nature of their work, teachers are required to plan for each lesson to be taught throughout the academic year.

In planning their activities, teachers are mindful of the fact that every child is unique, hence, instruction should be tailor-made to meet the educational needs of each learner as the teacher would have to teach different groups of learners (Anderson, 2007). These groups of learners

include those without special educational needs and those with special educational needs such as learning difficulties (LDs) as is usually the case in inclusive classroom settings. Thus, while some teachers teach only children with LDs in special schools, other teachers teach both children with and without LDs in regular classrooms, referred to as “inclusive education”. This means that both teachers in special and regular schools are responsible for teaching students with learning difficulties. These two different settings will certainly require different forms of workload and commitment from the teachers, suggesting the amount of distress they experience will differ.

Learning disabilities refer to problems associated with reading, writing and math, which are basic to an individual’s ability to learn (American Psychiatric Association, 2018). The common characteristic linked with this problem is that the individual has difficulties in learning using the traditional approach of education (Alkahtani, 2016). Children with peculiar educational needs have been described as those who have difficulties learning requiring special educational provision (Department for Education and Skills, 2001).

Children have a learning difficulty if they:

  1. experience greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of the same age; or
  • have a disability which hinders them from making use of educational facilities, generally provided for children of the same age in schools within the area
    • are under obligatory school age and are within the definition at a) or b) above or would do so if special educational provision was not made for them (Department for Education and Skills, 2001).

Universally, reliable disability data are difficult if not impossible to obtain and statistics on children with disabilities are grossly underestimated in developing countries (Graham, 2014).

However, between 5 to 15% of school-age children have been estimated to suffer from some forms of learning disability (American Psychiatric Association, 2018). The prevalence of children with disabilities in Uganda, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya have been reported to be 12% (UNICEF, 2014), 7.5% (ACPF, 2014), 4.5% (ACPF, 2014) and under 1% respectively (Graham, 2014). Focusing the lens on Ghana reveals that about 2% of school children between 6-14 years have some form of disability (UNICEF Ghana, 2015) and teachers are expected to meet their needs both within special schools and in the inclusive classroom setting, which can lead to psychological distress.

Psychological distress has been defined as an adverse case that a person has little or no control over (Mirowsky & Ross, 2003). On a daily basis, teachers experience many negative events in different professional situations which they are unable to control. Some of these occurrences are the behaviours and lives of students outside school, work safety, school boards and government initiatives and these can trigger psychological distress (Ferguson, Frost & Hall, 2012). Also, Ridner (2004) defined psychological distress as “the unique discomforting, emotional state experienced by an individual in response to a specific stressor or demand that results in harm, either temporary or permanent, to the person” (p. 539). This state of discomfort is associated with additional responsibilities to teachers such as holding meetings with guardians of children with special educational problems to discuss what educational resources the school has to offer such students (Clooney, 2013). Other responsibilities include developing new practices and policies and the modification of teaching strategies to accommodate students with learning difficulties. All these responsibilities suggest an increase in workload, hence, an increase in psychological distress levels (Boyle, Topping, Jindal-Snape & Norwich, 2012; Loreman, Deppeler & Harvey, 2011; Horn & Barnajee, 2009; Chaplain, 2008; Horne & Timmons, 2009; Francis, 2004).

Psychological distress arguably is a complex construct with several dimensions, however, in its simplest form it is seen as concerned with aspects of negative functioning. For example, psychological distress according to Massee et al. (1998) is manifested through forms such as irritability, anxiety, self-depreciation, depression and social disengagement. Again, it has been proposed that psychological distress is characterized by five attributes: inability to effectively cope with a negative situation, alteration of emotional state, discomfort, expression of discomfort and harm. A change of emotional state is confirmed by Massee (2000) who asserted that when an individual experiences psychological distress it is demonstrated by a change in his/her stable emotional state to a state of anxiety, depression, irritation, self-depreciation, aggression and demotivation.

Distress has been discovered to have a positive association with depressive symptoms, which means that increased occupational stress leads to increased symptoms of depression (Kidger et al., 2016; Shen et al., 2014). Depression and anxiety have been found to be common indicators of psychological distress and consequently cause teachers to leave the profession (Moges, 2017; Steinhardt et al., 2011; Montgomery and McCrone, 2010; Potter, 2007). Depression manifests itself in some emotional, mental, behavioural and physical symptoms and generally characterized by sadness, hopelessness, pessimism, tension, uneasiness and skepticism (Dilekmen & Erdem, 2013). Anxiety, on the other hand is defined by temporary fear, uncertainty and fear of the future, and intensity with which people experience anxiety varies (Barlow, 2004). Causes of anxiety among teachers in the classroom have been suggested to range from size of the class, classroom management and likely student violence to self-efficacy fears concerning student evaluation, administrative support and wage problems (Davis, 2007).

If teaching as an occupation has been found to be stressful, then teaching in a special school perhaps could be more demanding due to the peculiar nature of these learners and their diverse learning needs (Adeniyi, Fakolade, & Tella, 2010). It has been reported that special school teachers feel more anxious, feel less supported and are less satisfied with their jobs compared with their regular school counterparts (Hastings & Brown, 2002). Several factors have been found to be related with stress among special school instructors. These include high teacher-pupil ratio, high workload, lack of support and a lack of progress achieved by students and teachers. However, teachers in special schools may also experience low stress levels compared to their mates in regular classrooms because the former may be able to adjust adequately as a result of long periods of exposure to distress in these environments (Adeniyi, Fakolade, & Tella, 2010).

Workload and negative student behavior have been found to predict anxiety and depression among teachers (Ferguson, Frost, & Hall, 2012). Role overload has been suggested to be a root cause of distress associated with workload (Mirowsky & Ross, 2003). Instructors may have little control over workload associated with teaching students with learning difficulties such as implementing new initiatives pointing to the fact that the management of workload is crucial for teachers. Whereas classroom management is possible for teachers, in reality they have little or no control over the behaviour of students (Ferguson, Frost, & Hall, 2012). According to Ferguson, Frost and Hall, job security and opportunities for professional development may be out of teachers’ control but assistance offered them through career counselling and education concerning teacher collective agreements may help reduce anxiety. Additionally, social support from colleague teachers may ease distress.

Anxiety and depression have been found to be associated with impaired job efficiency, accidents and absence owing to teachers calling in sick. The more absence leaves teachers take,

the less contact hours spent with students with learning difficulties resulting in student underachievement (Ansley, Meyers, McPhee, & Varjas, 2018). Effects of anxiety and depression among teachers are probable to impact productivity, employee morale, accidents, absences and staff turnover at the organizational level (Haslam et al., 2005). The mental health of individuals can be affected by anxiety and depression in various ways. It affects attention, increases forgetfulness and can lead to attrition (rate at which people leave their jobs; Williams, 2015). In reaction to stress, psychological distress is connected with one’s inability to cope effectively with a challenging situation (Ridner, 2004).

Coping has been described as continually changing cognitive and behavioural attempts to address particular internal and/or external demand that exceed a person’s resources (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Coping has been identified as a main variable to reduce, minimize or tolerate stress and prevent psychological distress (Deasy, Cougglan, Pironom, Jourdan, & Mannix- McNamara, 2014). While some teachers use coping strategies to overcome these stressors, others have difficulty in dealing with them (Dick, 2010). Research have discovered various coping strategies adopted by teachers in managing stressors in teaching (Green & Ross, 1996; McCarthy, Lambert, O’Donnell, & Melendres, 2009) and how these strategies help decrease stress (Austin, Shah, & Muncer, 2005).

The use of different coping techniques can moderate distress in teaching. Direct or indirect approaches to stress reduction can be either active or inactive. Using a direct approach can change the source of the stress while an indirect strategy can change the manner an individual thinks or responds to the distress to reduce its effect (Antoniou, Polychroni, & Kotroni, 2009). Also, taking some action as an individual to change the situation or oneself is an active or direct approach, while engaging in activities in order to avoid or deny the source of stress is an inactive or indirect

way of dealing with the situation (Kelso, French, & Fernandez, 2005; Kyriacou, 2000, 2001; Williams & Gersch, 2004).

Some coping strategies have been identified among special school teachers by Green & Ross (1996). These strategies have been placed in three classifications namely: problem-focused coping, emotion-focused coping and avoidance coping. A direct or active way of coping which involves a step-by-step plan for problem solving is known as problem-focused coping. Emotion- focused coping, an indirect approach can involve seeking social support from friends, colleague teachers and family whereas avoidance coping, an indirect or inactive approach involves trying to avoid the source of the problem rather than dealing with it.

Studies have suggested reports of frequent usage of active coping strategies by special school teachers, for example taking steps to ameliorate the effects of stressors on the individual (Cancio, Larsen, Mathur, Estes, Johns, & Chang, 2018). In accordance with the three main classification of coping strategies proposed by Green and Ross (1996), it was revealed that special school teachers adopted mainly emotion-focused and problem-focused strategies (Antoniou, Polychroni, & Kotroni, 2009). Special school instructors are likely to use various direct or active coping strategies than regular school teachers, but they also adopt self-directed coping strategies comparable to those used by regular school teachers (Antoniou, Polychroni, & Kotroni, 2009). This is because special educators experience higher levels of distress compared to their mates in the regular schools due to the uniqueness of the different special needs of their learners (Adeniyi, Fakolade, & Tella, 2010). Consequently, it is probable that they make use of different active coping strategies to adjust adequately to the challenging situation in their environments.

Teachers have proposed a number of strategies as effective in coping with distress in teaching. Some of these are listing and prioritizing work, participating in recreational activities

and hobbies outside school hours and having a “sympathetic mentor” with whom to share issues (Gersch, 1996 as cited in Antoniou, Polychroni, & Kotroni, 2009). Social support from friends and colleagues, exercise and time management have also been described as effective coping actions used by special school teachers when they face difficult demands from their jobs (Paquette & Rieg, 2016). Special school and regular school teachers have also been found to resort to various strategies to cope with their distress. Among extremely effective strategies were time management and setting of priorities, engaging in recreational activities, and absenting oneself from school whereas the least used were the use of substance or prescribed medication and smoking. Again, special school teachers exhibited a proactive attitude toward coping than regular school teachers (Kebbi & Al-Hroub, 2018).

Typically, students with learning difficulties are found both in special education classrooms as well as in inclusive classrooms. In both settings, successful teaching and learning requires that for teachers to work effectively, there is the need to empower them with adequate knowledge and skills. It is therefore needful that teachers are adequately trained in special education needs to make them effective in the classroom (Dwomoh, Opoku, Owusu, & Ampratwum, 2016). This is because challenges associated with students with LDs require high competencies of learning and when teachers have inadequate competencies this might result in more distress (Rudiyati, Pujaningsih, & Mumpuniarti, 2017). Additionally, teachers have been found to be aware of LDs, but have less knowledge about the management of children with LDs (Ghimire, 2017) and this case is no different in Ghana (Dwomoh, Opoku, Owusu, & Ampratwum, 2016).