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Sensory-processing sensitivity in the context of the teaching profession and its demands. blessing, curse or both?
Sensory-processing sensitivity in the context of the teaching profession and its demands. blessing, curse or both?
The present study has two main purposes: First, investigating the role of sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS), describing inter-individual differences with regard to people’s sensitivity to positive and negative environmental stimuli through a deeper level of information processing (E. N. Aron & Aron, 1997), in the teaching work place. Second, it aims at revealing further insight into the association between SPS and different mental disorders as well as variables of therapeutic success. The teaching profession is widely accepted as being complex and highly demanding with many expectations and requirements, so the high level of stress found across teachers is thus not surprising. Nonetheless, teachers can only efficiently fulfill their important tasks and have a positive influence on students if they are mentally healthy. Given empirical findings supporting an increased stress level across teachers, numerous studies have investigated the conditions and processes behind the onset of mental ill-health and developed various prevention programs to support teachers in dealing with their perceived stress. Looking through the research area, a clear focus on behavior and personality-related characteristics of teachers is present, including, for example, various dysfunctional cognitions, coping behavior or the Big Five personality traits (McCrae, 2009). Although other studies consider environmental aspects of the work place as well, such as noise or schedules, the integration of these two entities is still a research gap. This is true despite recent developments emphasizing the perspective of person-environment interactions, particularly in the field of stress. The present study takes up this gap by introducing the temperament trait of SPS into the field of teacher professionalism and health research, representing a holistic way of analyzing person-environment interactions as it focuses on individuals’ reactivity to certain environmental conditions and stimuli. Embedded into the project “Risiko-Check für das Lehramt” (“Checking risks of the teaching profession”), two teacher samples participated in the study: a non-clinical sample of teachers (n = 194), who were actively teaching in the school context and a clinical sample of teachers (n = 130), who received inpatient treatment and were diagnosed with mental disorders during the data collection process. Both groups filled out the same questionnaire, which included different scales measuring aspects of the teaching environment (e.g., workplace characteristics and expectations, or a scale measuring collaboration) and personality-related variables of teachers (e.g., dysfunctional cognitions, self-efficacy, coping strategies, and SPS). For a small sub-group of the teachers in the clinical sample, additional clinically-relevant data, such as measures of therapeutic success or additional measures of mental disorders, was also available. In line with the first goal of the study, results reveal further evidence for the validity of the construct: SPS was successfully differentiated from other variables measuring psychological well-being, including Depression, Anxiety, and Stress. The second aim represents the investigation of the role of the temperamental trait of SPS in the teaching context. Of particular interest are the perception of certain workplace-demand characteristics unique to this profession (Rothland, 2013) and the extent to which certain characteristics related to SPS are activated in teachers in their everyday lives. Findings suggest that highly sensitive teachers feel more attuned to the students, who need help, but, at the same time, have more difficulties with regard to the characteristics that are very open and include a certain degree of flexibility. Those are for example, maintaining an efficient work-life balance, dealing with their tasks and deciding when certain demands are fulfilled, lack of feedback, and the various expectations teachers are confronted with. In spite of these difficulties, they perceive themselves as similarly successful as non-highly sensitive teachers. Additionally, SPS mediates the relationship between different demands and teachers’ perceived stress. Three ways this is possible are an increased frequency of applying dysfunctional cognitions, coping strategies, and lower self-efficacy. Research questions in line with the third general goal of the present study include a more detailed investigation of the association with clinically relevant variables; the difference between mentally ill teachers and those teaching actively; and evidence for the presence of the Vantage Theory framework (Pluess, 2017) in clinical contexts, describing increased effect of positive and supporting environments, such as those found in therapeutic interventions. In general, participants in the clinical sample reach higher mean scores on the scale measuring SPS than participants in the non-clinical sample. Additionally, investigating the symptoms of teachers in the clinical sample, highly sensitive teachers show more severe symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders. Finally, in line with one of the hypotheses stated in this context, results support the presence of vantage sensitivity in this study. While almost all patients show improvements in their general functioning and clinical global impression at release (i.e., comparing it to their levels at admission), patients with high levels of SPS are found to benefit even more from the treatment, on average, than patients with lower levels of SPS. This is true for the majority of symptoms that are associated with SPS, which include phobic anxiety, anxiety, and depressive disorders. Finally, the fourth objective of the present study aims at broadening the findings by investigating the hypothesis of the existence of different sensitivity types. Then, all theoretical and empirical models as well as existing findings and those generated in the present study are taken together in order to develop an overarching model for the development of stress in teaching, including SPS as one facet. Results of a cluster analysis including the highly sensitive teachers of both samples disclose the existence of three sensitivity types that differ significantly with regard to their core areas of certain characteristics of SPS. While one group reaches comparably high scores across facets, the remaining two sensitivity types show a particular focus, either the facet Aesthetical sensitivity or the two factors Low sensory threshold and Ease of excitation. The majority of the clinical sample is found to be more aesthetically sensitive, whereas most teachers in the nonc-clinical sample are assigned to the group with comparably higher scores across facets. Furthermore, these sensitivity types differ with regard to their work-life balance and dysfunctional cognitions as well as coping strategies in a such way that the Aesthetically sensitive type reach mean scores that can be interpreted as most functional when compared to the remaining types. Finally, with regard to a general model of stress development for teaching, despite the final model not reaching statistical indices indicating a fit to the data of the present study, comparisons of regression weights reveal support for the significant role of SPS in comparison to already-established variables. In summary, the findings of the present study close various research gaps and have multiple implications. First, they reveal evidence for the fact that SPS could add valuable information when implemented into research on teacher professionalism and teacher stress, which has diverse implications for the political, administrational and individual level. Secondly, they broaden the research field of SPS by revealing more insight into the associations between SPS and mental ill-health as well as evidence in support of vantage sensitivity, suggesting that patients with higher levels of SPS benefit more from therapeutic interventions than patients with lower levels. Limitations of the present study are discussed critically and suggested approaches for further research studies are described.
Sensory-Processing Sensitivity, Teaching, Psychological well-being
Tillmann, Teresa
2019
English
Universitätsbibliothek der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
Tillmann, Teresa (2019): Sensory-processing sensitivity in the context of the teaching profession and its demands: blessing, curse or both?. Dissertation, LMU München: Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences
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Abstract

The present study has two main purposes: First, investigating the role of sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS), describing inter-individual differences with regard to people’s sensitivity to positive and negative environmental stimuli through a deeper level of information processing (E. N. Aron & Aron, 1997), in the teaching work place. Second, it aims at revealing further insight into the association between SPS and different mental disorders as well as variables of therapeutic success. The teaching profession is widely accepted as being complex and highly demanding with many expectations and requirements, so the high level of stress found across teachers is thus not surprising. Nonetheless, teachers can only efficiently fulfill their important tasks and have a positive influence on students if they are mentally healthy. Given empirical findings supporting an increased stress level across teachers, numerous studies have investigated the conditions and processes behind the onset of mental ill-health and developed various prevention programs to support teachers in dealing with their perceived stress. Looking through the research area, a clear focus on behavior and personality-related characteristics of teachers is present, including, for example, various dysfunctional cognitions, coping behavior or the Big Five personality traits (McCrae, 2009). Although other studies consider environmental aspects of the work place as well, such as noise or schedules, the integration of these two entities is still a research gap. This is true despite recent developments emphasizing the perspective of person-environment interactions, particularly in the field of stress. The present study takes up this gap by introducing the temperament trait of SPS into the field of teacher professionalism and health research, representing a holistic way of analyzing person-environment interactions as it focuses on individuals’ reactivity to certain environmental conditions and stimuli. Embedded into the project “Risiko-Check für das Lehramt” (“Checking risks of the teaching profession”), two teacher samples participated in the study: a non-clinical sample of teachers (n = 194), who were actively teaching in the school context and a clinical sample of teachers (n = 130), who received inpatient treatment and were diagnosed with mental disorders during the data collection process. Both groups filled out the same questionnaire, which included different scales measuring aspects of the teaching environment (e.g., workplace characteristics and expectations, or a scale measuring collaboration) and personality-related variables of teachers (e.g., dysfunctional cognitions, self-efficacy, coping strategies, and SPS). For a small sub-group of the teachers in the clinical sample, additional clinically-relevant data, such as measures of therapeutic success or additional measures of mental disorders, was also available. In line with the first goal of the study, results reveal further evidence for the validity of the construct: SPS was successfully differentiated from other variables measuring psychological well-being, including Depression, Anxiety, and Stress. The second aim represents the investigation of the role of the temperamental trait of SPS in the teaching context. Of particular interest are the perception of certain workplace-demand characteristics unique to this profession (Rothland, 2013) and the extent to which certain characteristics related to SPS are activated in teachers in their everyday lives. Findings suggest that highly sensitive teachers feel more attuned to the students, who need help, but, at the same time, have more difficulties with regard to the characteristics that are very open and include a certain degree of flexibility. Those are for example, maintaining an efficient work-life balance, dealing with their tasks and deciding when certain demands are fulfilled, lack of feedback, and the various expectations teachers are confronted with. In spite of these difficulties, they perceive themselves as similarly successful as non-highly sensitive teachers. Additionally, SPS mediates the relationship between different demands and teachers’ perceived stress. Three ways this is possible are an increased frequency of applying dysfunctional cognitions, coping strategies, and lower self-efficacy. Research questions in line with the third general goal of the present study include a more detailed investigation of the association with clinically relevant variables; the difference between mentally ill teachers and those teaching actively; and evidence for the presence of the Vantage Theory framework (Pluess, 2017) in clinical contexts, describing increased effect of positive and supporting environments, such as those found in therapeutic interventions. In general, participants in the clinical sample reach higher mean scores on the scale measuring SPS than participants in the non-clinical sample. Additionally, investigating the symptoms of teachers in the clinical sample, highly sensitive teachers show more severe symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders. Finally, in line with one of the hypotheses stated in this context, results support the presence of vantage sensitivity in this study. While almost all patients show improvements in their general functioning and clinical global impression at release (i.e., comparing it to their levels at admission), patients with high levels of SPS are found to benefit even more from the treatment, on average, than patients with lower levels of SPS. This is true for the majority of symptoms that are associated with SPS, which include phobic anxiety, anxiety, and depressive disorders. Finally, the fourth objective of the present study aims at broadening the findings by investigating the hypothesis of the existence of different sensitivity types. Then, all theoretical and empirical models as well as existing findings and those generated in the present study are taken together in order to develop an overarching model for the development of stress in teaching, including SPS as one facet. Results of a cluster analysis including the highly sensitive teachers of both samples disclose the existence of three sensitivity types that differ significantly with regard to their core areas of certain characteristics of SPS. While one group reaches comparably high scores across facets, the remaining two sensitivity types show a particular focus, either the facet Aesthetical sensitivity or the two factors Low sensory threshold and Ease of excitation. The majority of the clinical sample is found to be more aesthetically sensitive, whereas most teachers in the nonc-clinical sample are assigned to the group with comparably higher scores across facets. Furthermore, these sensitivity types differ with regard to their work-life balance and dysfunctional cognitions as well as coping strategies in a such way that the Aesthetically sensitive type reach mean scores that can be interpreted as most functional when compared to the remaining types. Finally, with regard to a general model of stress development for teaching, despite the final model not reaching statistical indices indicating a fit to the data of the present study, comparisons of regression weights reveal support for the significant role of SPS in comparison to already-established variables. In summary, the findings of the present study close various research gaps and have multiple implications. First, they reveal evidence for the fact that SPS could add valuable information when implemented into research on teacher professionalism and teacher stress, which has diverse implications for the political, administrational and individual level. Secondly, they broaden the research field of SPS by revealing more insight into the associations between SPS and mental ill-health as well as evidence in support of vantage sensitivity, suggesting that patients with higher levels of SPS benefit more from therapeutic interventions than patients with lower levels. Limitations of the present study are discussed critically and suggested approaches for further research studies are described.