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Burnout Among Special Education Administrators:

A Preliminary Study
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Susan J. Carter, Ed.D.
Dowling College, Oakdale, NY

N Research on the extent of stress and burnout among special education administrators is not as well
developed as research on the extent of stress and burnout among teachers.

N This study utilized the Maslach Burnout Inventory to determine levels of stress and burnout among
administrators of special education.

N Results indicated administrators of special education had above-average levels of emotional exhaustion,
average levels of depersonalization, and above-average feelings of personal accomplishment and were
more emotionally exhausted than professionals in teaching, postsecondary education, social services,
mental health, or medicine.

N This study suggests it is important for special education administrators to take a preventative approach in
order to reduce the emotional exhaustion of the job.
N
T he practice of special education administration is
a highly rewarding yet often stressful profession.
Although researchers have studied occupational stress
The Nature of Special
Education Administration
and burnout among special education teachers, few Before examining the construct of burnout, it is
studies focus on the extent of stress and burnout important to understand the professional
among special education administrators. The qualifications and responsibilities of the position of
demands and expectations of the position have special education administrator. Advanced Role
increased, secondary to fiscal, legal, educational, and Content Standards have been developed by The
community challenges. Dwindling resources in Council for Exceptional Children Subcommittee on
today’s economy, reliability on student test scores for Knowledge and Skills (Figure 1). Higher education
teacher and administrator evaluation, knowing what institutions must align their administrative
constitutes best practices, mandates of response to programs with these standards for National
intervention, and parent advocacy are just some of the Collegiate Accreditation in Teacher Education.
sources of emotional strain for even the most Frequently, special education leaders begin their
experienced administrators. Special education leaders careers as special education teachers, psychologists,
experience fatigue and feelings of being physically run social workers, or related service providers, then
down, report sleeplessness and increased irritability, fulfill advanced coursework beyond the master’s
and engage in greater professional risk taking (Begley, degree, leading to a certification as a school district
1982). Due to the demands of the position, burnout leader administrator’s certification. The special
among special education administrators seems likely. education administrator needs to have an
The purpose of this study is to determine whether understanding of all aspects of education, including
special education administrators experience burnout. educational and special education law, and a broad
Are they emotionally exhausted, depersonalizing understanding of the medical and psychological
their students and lacking feelings of personal issues affecting children from birth through 21 years
accomplishment? Do factors such as years of of age. Additionally, the challenge for all school
administrative experience, gender, and age predict administrators is to ‘‘direct system-wide reform
the extent of burnout? initiatives that redefine leadership in ways that

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Burnout Among Special Education
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Figure 1. The Council for Exceptional Children Advanced Role Content Standards.
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Leadership and Policy: Advocate for legal and ethical policy that supports high-quality education for
individuals with exceptional learning needs; provide leadership to create procedures that respect all
individuals and positive and productive work environments.
Program Development and Organization: Improve instructional programs at the school and system
levels; develop procedures to improve management systems; design professional development to support
the use of evidence-based practices; coordinate educational standards with the needs of children with
exceptionalities to access challenging curriculum standards; use understanding of the effects of cultural
social, and economic diversity and variations of individual development to help develop programs and
services for individuals with exceptional needs.
Research and Inquiry: Use educational research to improve instructional and intervention techniques and
materials; foster an environment that supports instructional improvement; engage in action research.
Student and Program Evaluation: Design and implement research to evaluate the effectiveness of
instructional practices and program goals, apply knowledge and skill at all stages of the evaluation process
for student learning of the general education curriculum and individualized IEP goals.
Professional Development and Ethical Practice: Safeguard the legal rights of students, families, and
personnel; plan, present, and evaluate professional development that focuses on effective practice;
continuously broaden personal professional knowledge, including expertise to support student access to
learning through effective teaching strategies, curriculum standards, and assistive technology.
Collaboration: Understand the importance of collaboration and foster the integration of services for
individuals with exceptionalities; understand the role of collaboration for internal and external stakeholders
to promote understanding, resolve conflicts, and build consensus to provide services to these students and
their families; understand the interactions of language, diversity, culture, and religion and use collaboration
to enhance opportunities for individuals with exceptionalities.
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support the use of proven practices, and link paraprofessionals, one-to-one aides, behaviorists,
administrative interventions to increased and clerical staff. Additionally, special education
educational achievement for each student who has a administrators must respond to state and federal
disability and for all the students in their charge’’ mandates in a timely manner in order to make sure
(Boscardin, 2007, pp. 197–198). Special education they are compliant with new regulations, forms, and
administrators are responsible for evaluating policies. The trickle-down effect of new mandates,
teachers; determining eligibility of students for such as the soon-to-be-reauthorized Individuals
special programs; creating new programs in order to With Disabilities Education Act and the Elementary
respond to the needs of the children within the and Secondary Education Act, Response to
school district; budgeting; collaborating with Intervention initiatives, and individualized
physicians, psychiatrists, and psychologists; and educational program (IEP) development, is such that
working closely with parents, school attorneys, training of staff is an ongoing process and another
teachers, related service providers, consultants, responsibility.

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them as people who deserve the challenges and
Burnout Research difficulties they have. The individual may feel
Burnout research among general and special unhappy about his or her job performance and
education administrators is very limited. This may be accomplishments on the job (Maslach, Jackson, &
attributed to the perception of the scholarly Leiter, 1996). Pines and Aronson (1988) found that
community and lay public that school administrators ‘‘individuals burn out because their work experience
are immune from the adverse effects of stress and doesn’t match their ideal and they can’t achieve in
burnout (Ward, 2005) and are thought to be the cause their work what they expected to achieve’’ (p. 59).
of it. In fact, many studies in the 1980s and 1990s
focus on stress and burnout among special education
teachers secondary to the special educator shortage
..........................................
It [burnout ] is a response to the ‘‘chronic’’
and their attrition in the work force. Wisniewski and emotional strain of dealing extensively with other
Gargiulo (1997) found that teachers experienced
stress and burnout as the result of working with human beings, particularly when they are troubled
students with challenging behaviors, lack of supplies, or having problems’’ (Maslach, p. 3) and results in a
excessive paperwork, few opportunities for
‘‘permanent hardening of the human heart’’
professional interactions, lack of recognition, and
stressful interpersonal interactions. Results of a meta- (Maslach, p. 85).
analysis (Edmonson, 2001) demonstrated that only 5
out of 46 studies of special educator burnout studied Although administrators are expected to lead and
it among special education administrators. Because contribute to a positive school climate, if an
they are now charged with being transformational administrator experiences burnout, staff morale may
and instructional leaders who prompt positive be low, teachers do not feel valued, teachers have
change in their buildings and districts, it is important high absenteeism rates, and faculties lack teamwork
to identify any obstacles such as stress that may keep and collegiality.
them from performing their work effectively. The
study of burnout among special education leaders
should be a primary concern for future research Method
studies.
Instrumentation
The Conceptualization of Burnout Maslach’s theoretical model of the three constructs of
burnout is the most widely used standardized
The term burnout was coined by Herbert measure of job burnout and was chosen for this study.
Freudenberger (Freudenberger & Richelson, 1980), a The Maslach Burnout Inventory Educators Survey
Manhattan psychiatrist who defined it as the (MBI-ES) (Maslach, Jackson, & Schwab, 1996) is an
extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where adaptation of the original MBI Human Services Survey
one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to (MBI-HSS) and assesses three aspects of burnout
produce the desired results. Two years later, Maslach including emotional exhaustion, depersonalization,
(1982), a pioneer in research on burnout, described it and lack of personal accomplishment. Burnout is
as a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, conceptualized along a continuum and is indicated by
depersonalization, and reduced personal higher scores on the depersonalization and emotional
accomplishment that can occur among individuals exhaustion scales, and lower scores on the personal
who do ‘‘people work’’ of some kind. It is a response to accomplishment scale. Emotional exhaustion is
the ‘‘chronic emotional strain of dealing extensively conceptualized as the tired and fatigued feeling that
with other human beings, particularly when they are develops as emotional energies are drained. When
troubled or having problems’’ (Maslach, p. 3) and these feelings become chronic, educators find they can
results in ‘‘a permanent hardening of the human ‘‘no longer give of themselves at a psychological level’’
heart’’ (Maslach, p. 85). This can manifest in an (Masloch, Jackson, & Leiter, 1996) (p. 4). The second
individual as a callous, negative, and cynical feeling aspect of burnout is depersonalization; this term
about one’s parents, teachers, or students, regarding describes educators who no longer have positive

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Table 1: Range of experienced burnout

MBI Subscales Low Average High


Emotional Exhaustion ,16 17–26 27
Depersonalization 6 7–12 13
Personal Accomplishment 39 38–32 31
Note. Taken from Maslach, Jackson, and Leiter (1996, p. 6).

feelings about those they work with. They can display Survey Monkey account (http://www.
‘‘indifferent, negative attitudes, be ‘‘cold or distant,’’ surveymonkey.com).
and ‘‘distance themselves’’ from others (p. 4). Personal The validity of the MBI-ES was established by
accomplishment, the third aspect of burnout, describes Iwanicki and Schwab (1981) and by Gold (1984),
educators as not feeling they are contributing to the supporting the three-factor structure of the
profession, being vulnerable to being profoundly instrument. Reliability coefficients for this instrument
disappointed, and having feelings that their jobs are no were similar to the those of the MBI-HSS, with
longer rewarding. Individuals with low feelings of Cronbach alpha estimates of .90 for Emotional
personal accomplishment have lost their altruistic Exhaustion, .76 for Depersonalization, and .76 for
feelings and dedication to helping students (Maslach Personal Accomplishment (Iwanicki & Schwab). Gold
et al., 1996). found reliabilities of .88, .74, and .72 (as reported in
Each of the three categories of burnout is Maslach et al., 1996, p. 29).
measured by a separate subscale. The Emotional
Exhaustion subscale assesses feelings of being
emotionally overextended and exhausted by one’s
Participants
work. The Depersonalization subscale measures an The target population was special education
unfeeling and impersonal response toward recipients supervisors and administrators. Two organizations
of one’s service, care, treatment, or instruction. The were chosen to invite online participation in the
Personal Accomplishment subscale assesses feeling study. Respondents were members of the Long Island
of competence and successful achievement in one’s Association of Special Education Administrators
work with people (Maslach et al., 1996, p. 4). This from Long Island, NY, and the national organization
subscale is reverse scored; the higher the score, the of the Council of Administrators of Special
less personal accomplishment experienced by the Education, a division of the Council for Exceptional
respondent. Children. Fifty female and nine male special
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Burnout is conceptualized along a continuum and is
education administrators (N 5 59) responded to the
online survey over a period of 3 months. A 3-month
time frame over the summer months was selected
indicated by higher scores on the depersonalization based on the convenience of the researcher.
and emotional exhaustion scales, and lower scores Participants ranged in age from 32 to 62 years
(mean [M] 5 50.31; SD 5 7.756) and had experience
on the personal accomplishment scale. in educational administration ranging from 1 to
31 years (M 5 11.66; SD 5 7.756). Due to the
A 22-item questionnaire asked respondents to anonymity of responses, the researcher did not know
report their feelings using a 6-point, anchored- which of the two organizations the respondent had
response format: Never (0), A few times a year or less (1), membership in.
Once a month or less (2), A few times a month (3), Once a
week (4), A few times a week (5), and Every day (6). For
Procedures
example, on the first item, respondents chose the
response that indicated how often they felt The institutional review board granted approval for
emotionally drained from their work. Respondents the study. A Survey Monkey account was opened
completed this survey online with anonymous with a Web link provided to the membership of each
responses returned to the researcher through a organization. Anonymous responses were collected

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Table 2: Special education Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) subscale scores compared with other professions

MBI Subscales
Occupational Subgroups Emotional Exhaustion Depersonalization Personal Accomplishment

Special Education Administrators


Mean (M) 34.00 10.9 46.69
Standard deviation (SD) 12.37 6.12 7.8

Overall sample
M 20.99 8.73 34.58
SD 10.75 5.89 7.11

Teaching
M 21.25 11.00 33.54
SD 11.01 6.19 6.89

Postsecondary education
M 18.57 5.57 39.17
SD 11.95 6.63 7.92

Social services
M 21.35 7.46 32.75
SD 10.51 5.11 7.71

Medicine
M 22.19 7.12 36.53
SD 10.51 5.22 7.34
Note. Taken from Maslach, Jackson, and Leiter (1996, p. 8).

over a 3-month period and analyzed using IBM SPSS feelings of depersonalization (M 5 10.90; SD 5 6.12),
version 19. and had very strong feelings of personal
Descriptive statistics were used to compare means accomplishment (M 5 46.69; SD 5 7.80). Multiple
and determine the extent of emotional exhaustion, regression analysis found no significant relationships
depersonalization, and personal accomplishment, between administrators’ years of experience or age on
whereas correlation and multiple regression analysis the three burnout variables. The relationship of
determined whether years of administrator gender to burnout was not analyzed due to the
experience, age, and gender were predictors of limited number of male respondents. A negative
emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, or personal correlation (2.3) was found between personal
accomplishment. accomplishment and emotional exhaustion,
Responses to questions were totaled to yield the demonstrating that those who had higher feelings of
three subscales. Averages were obtained for the personal accomplishment were less emotionally
entire group in the areas of emotional exhaustion, exhausted.
depersonalization, and personal accomplishment and Results from this study were compared with
compared with the numerical ranges found in the norms found among teachers, higher education
MBI Manual (p. 6) and presented in Table 1. professors, and professionals in social services and in
medicine (Table 2). Special education administrators,
on average, were highly emotionally exhausted
Results compared with professionals in teaching,
Participants were found to be highly emotionally postsecondary education, social services, medicine,
exhausted (M 5 34.00, SD 5 12.37), had average and mental health occupations, with averages

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Burnout Among Special Education
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11.81 points higher than those in medicine. They also regard parents or students as impersonal objects or
had stronger feelings of personal accomplishment deserving of their hardships.
compared with all the other professions.
Limitations of the Study
Discussion This study serves as a preliminary study due to the
limited number of participants and lays the
Strong Feelings of Emotional Exhaustion groundwork for further research on a larger national
Special education administrators were more sample. Additionally, because all of the participants
emotionally exhausted and had strong feelings of were members of organizations offering professional
personal accomplishment compared with teachers, development, networking opportunities, and
postsecondary educators, and professionals in social collegial supports, respondents had potentially more
services, medicine, and mental health occupations. validation from colleagues compared with those
Findings of this study are consistent with those found without memberships. Membership in a supportive
by Gmelch and Gates (1998), with emotional organization may result in higher than average
exhaustion to be at the center of administrator burnout. personal accomplishment scores compared with
They found that frequent interruptions, participating those having no membership.
in activities outside school hours, too heavy a
workload, meetings, writing reports and memos, and Suggestions for Further Research
the constant stress of having to resolve differences
More research is needed to pinpoint the source of
among students, parents, teachers, and superiors to be
emotional exhaustion among special education
contributing factors. They were also exhausted from
administrators. It is hypothesized that similar to other
trying to finish things up, taking work more seriously
human service professionals, a special education
than others, and having a hard-driving work ethic.
administrator participates daily in highly charged
Edmonson (2001) found that as an administrator’s role
situations involving children with disabling
ambiguity increased, the frequency and intensity of
conditions and their parents and finding suitable
emotional exhaustion increased and the frequency of
supports and educational programs for them. They
depersonalization increased.
operate with a finite budget and respond to time-

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… administrators should ‘‘build endurance,
consuming litigation and federal and state mandates,
as well as personnel issues.
Future research comparing burnout among special
education administrators with that among principals
flexibility and strength, and the spirit, whether it be and superintendents would be interesting. A
through music, prayer, nature, continuing qualitative research approach would provide insight
education, reading good literature, or personal as to the phenomenology of emotional exhaustion and
the strategies individuals employ to combat it.
emotional management strategies’’ (Covey, p. 288).

Although special education administrators were


Coping With Emotional Exhaustion
emotionally exhausted, they had a strong sense of This study suggests it is important for special
personal accomplishment. The rewards of personal education administrators to adopt a proactive and
accomplishment may have a protective effect against preventative approach in order to reduce their
being consumed by overwhelming burnout and emotional exhaustion. Administrators need to
emotional exhaustion. Perhaps many administrators proactively gauge their stress levels and take care of
are able to derive satisfaction from creating supports themselves physically and emotionally by creating
and programs for students who really need them and balance in their lives. Fields (2005), examining coping
observing the progress they make. strategies among first-year principals and assistant
Administrators had average feelings of principals, found that having a sense of humor,
depersonalization compared with the norms. Most venting, exercising, and talking with colleagues and
had not developed coldness on the job and did not significant others was helpful. Special education

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administrators need to take time to ‘‘recharge their Covey, S.R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New
batteries’’ through involvement in relaxing and York: Simon & Schuster.
enjoyable activities with supportive friends and Edmonson, S. (2001, February). Burnout among special
family. The development of supportive, collegial, and education administrators. Paper presented at the Annual
Conference of The American Association of School
professional relationships with the district school
Administrators Annual Conference, Orlando, FL.
board and superintendent may help as well. Retrieved February 4, 2010 from http://www.eric.ed.gov.
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include coursework on self-awareness, coping, time for novice school administrators. Essays in Education,
management, and conflict resolution skills. Students 14, Retrieved from http://www.usca.edu/essays/
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question, ‘‘What do I need to do to maintain my Freudenberger, H., & Richelson, G. (1980). Burnout: The
individual emotional stamina?’’ Additionally, high cost of high achievement. What it is and how to survive
administrators should ‘‘build endurance, flexibility it. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press.
and strength, and the spirit, whether it be through Gmelch, W.H., & Gates, G. (1998). The impact of personal,
professional and organizational characteristics on
music, prayer, nature, continuing education, reading
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good literature, or personal emotional management
Administration, 36(2), 146–159. Retrieved October 30,
strategies’’ (Covey, p. 288). 2010 from ABI/INFORM Global database. (Document
Special education administrators need to ensure that ID: 115721734).
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appropriate education services and supports in a fiscally Burnout Inventory in a sample of California elementary
challenging environment. In fact, the stress experienced and junior high school classroom teachers. Educational
by administrators may be increasing in response to the and Psychological Measurement, 44, 1009–1016.
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Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
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administrators pay a steep emotional price. They must Maslach, C., Jackson, S.E., & Schwab, R.L. (1996). Maslach
be cautious of becoming emotionally consumed by the Burnout Inventory–Educators Survey (MBI-ES). In C.
position, resulting in potential health issues. They Maslach, S.E. Jackson, & M.P. Leiter (Eds.), MBI
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Ward, B.K. (2009). The impact of personal and organizational
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References doctoral dissertation. University of Texas, San Antonio, TX.
Wisniewski, L., & Gargiulo, R.M. (1997). Occupational
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Exceptional Children, Houston, TX. Abstract. Retrieved
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Boscardin, M.L. (2007). What is special about special About the Author
education administration? Considerations for school
leadership. Exceptionality, 15(3), 189–200. Susan J. Carter, Ed.D., is an assistant professor in the
Council for Exceptional Children. Advanced Role Content Department of Special Education at Dowling College,
Standards. Retrieved October 30, 2010 from www.cec. 150 Idle Hour Boulevard, Oakdale, NY 11769. E-mail:
sped.org/AM/TemplateRedirect.ctm?template5/CM/. carters@dowling.edu.

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