Teachers suffering from burnout can pass their stress on to their pupils – impeding the youngsters’ learning and disturbing their behaviour, according to new research.

The study is the first of its kind to examine the connection between teacher burnout and childrens’ cortisol levels, which are a biological indicator of stress.

Researchers in Canada collected saliva samples from more than 400 school children, aged nine to 13, and tested their cortisol levels.

They found that in classrooms in which teachers experienced more burnout, or feelings of emotional exhaustion, students’ cortisol levels were elevated.

Higher cortisol levels in school children have been linked to learning difficulties as well as mental health problems.

Study lead author Professor Eva Oberle, of the University of British Columbia’s school of population and public health, said: “This suggests that stress contagion might be taking place in the classroom among students and their teachers.

“It is unknown what came first – elevated cortisol or teacher burnout. We consider the connection between student and teacher stress a cyclical problem in the classroom.”

Prof Oberle said a stressful classroom climate could be a result of inadequate support for teachers, which may impact teachers’ ability to effectively manage their students.

A poorly managed classroom can contribute to students’ needs not being met and increasing stress. This could be reflected in elevated cortisol levels in students.

Alternatively, stress could originate from students, who may be more challenging to teach because of increases in anxiety, behavioural problems, or special needs. In this scenario, teachers could feel overwhelmed and report higher levels of burnout, said Prof Oberle.

She added: “Our study is a reminder of the systemic issues facing teachers and educators as classroom sizes increase and supports for teachers are cut.”

Co-author professor Kimberly Schonert-Reichl said: “It is clear from a number of recent research studies that teaching is one of the most stressful professions, and that teachers need adequate resources and support in their jobs in order to battle burnout and alleviate stress in the classroom.

“If we do not support teachers, we risk the collateral damage of students.”

The findings were published in the journal Social Science and Medicine.

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