Special education teachers play a pivotal role in public education. They are also known to have one of the most challenging and stressful professions.

“In the roughly two decades since researchers declared that burnout among special educators serving students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorder (EBD) was near a crisis stage, very little has been done to research and address this problem and how it impacts the quality of student interventions,” says UVM Assistant Professor of Special Education Justin Garwood. "I know from personal experience that we need to do better at helping reduce this stress to promote teacher longevity in the field."

Describing the current situation as precarious, Dr. Garwood says the stress and burnout felt by special educators leads to struggles with the fidelity of behavior interventions, which in turn causes more distress as student behaviors and outcomes fail to improve. 

Compelled by the lack of existing research to inform burnout prevention efforts, Garwood is principal investigator leading Project Burn and Turn, a four-year exploration phase study funded by a half million-dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES). His key partners on the project include Dr. Mika Moore who serves as the project coordinator, along with support from his mentors, Dr. Kimberly Vannest and Dr. Michael Giangreco, and research assistants Jennifer Stratton and Glenn Patterson. 

“We’re trying to figure out how to break this negative cycle,” says Garwood.

Through prolonged engagement in the field with special educators who are delivering behavior supports plans (BSPs) to students with and at risk for EBD, the study explores and tests factors related to burnout, such as behavior management efficacy, role stressors, cohesion with paraprofessionals and teaching colleagues, and teacher-student relationships. 

Special educators can have a variety of responsibilities, including instruction of content, teaching social and vocational skills, assessment of students, writing individualized education programs (IEPs), consultation with general education teachers and parents, delivery of behavior interventions, supervision paraprofessionals, and implementing accommodations and modifications.

Garwood notes that managing student behavior is one of the most time-consuming roles, and often one of the primary causes of special educator burnout.  His previous study exploring the burnout topic received the 2019 Research Article of the Year Award from the American Council on Rural Special Education, and ultimately inspired his current research project and its funding from IES. 

Further illustrating the importance of the project and its potential impact on education and society as a whole, Garwood says that students with EBD present some of the greatest challenges due to their intensive needs, and they also have some of the worst school and post-secondary outcomes of all students with disabilities (school suspension, dropout, underemployment, and incarceration).

Less than a year into the project, Garwood and his team are working to gather data from seven different schools participating in the study across three different states. “We were slowed down somewhat by COVID-19 initially," he explains, "but expect to work with up to 60 schools across multiple states during the course of the four-year study.”

Though preliminary findings will be released in manuscript later this year, Garwood sees a set of correlating factors emerging that relate to whether or not special educators experience burnout. Particularly important are the quality of relationships with students, paraprofessionals, teaching colleagues, and school administrators. Other important factors include the overall level of school support, competing demands, and role conflict/ambiguity. 

“Although we currently have some reactive interventions to help address burnout, the more effective strategies would involve prevention of special educator burnout in the first place,” he says. “Along with in-service and professional development, we could implement pre-service education to prevent burnout.”

After publishing the results and recommendations from Project Burn and Turn, Garwood expects to follow up with an intervention phase study implementing preventative proposals from lessons learned.

“Theoretically, prevention of burnout should lead to improved outcomes for students with EBD, and the resulting benefits can reduce costs for schools, communities and society as a whole.”