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The Highly Sensitive Teacher: Sensory-Processing Sensitivity, Burnout, and Self-Efficacy in Urban Public School Teachers


This sequential mixed methods study investigated Sensory-Processing Sensitivity (SPS) among urban teachers and the extent to which SPS correlated with their sense of self-efficacy, stress levels, and risk of burnout. Respondents to a survey (n=114) consisted of teachers from high needs schools in an urban district and included teachers from the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Teachers were screened for likelihood of presenting with SPS using the Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSP; 1996), and responded to items pertaining to self-efficacy, stress, and burnout. The data was analyzed using frequencies, correlations, and linear and logistic regressions. From the survey sample population, teachers who scored in the highest 20% of respondents for SPS were invited to participate in the qualitative phase of the study, which consisted of a journal and a one-on-one interview (n=7).

Analysis of the survey data revealed a statistically significant positive relationship between SPS and burnout that was mediated by stress and self-efficacy. Analysis also revealed a statistically significant positive correlation between SPS and the emotional exhaustion construct of burnout. In addition, analysis of the data revealed a positive correlation between SPS and stress but did not reveal a correlation between SPS and self-efficacy.

Analysis of the qualitative data revealed that teachers who are likely to present with SPS display characteristics of SPS, including depth of processing represented by reflection and deliberateness, strong empathy and emotional reactivity manifested as support for students, sensitivity to subtle stimuli by reading others’ moods and body language, and susceptibility to over-stimulation that contributed to fatigue and agitation. Teachers’ greatest sources of stress were competing time demands and challenges with colleagues. Additionally, teachers who scored high in SPS relied on routine or day-to-day coping strategies as well as more systematic, long-term coping strategies. Most notably, teachers who participated in the journals and interviews displayed a shift in cognitive appraisal when they learned about SPS and their results from the Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSP, 1996).

These findings indicate that teachers who present with SPS may benefit from awareness of the trait and from a stronger understanding of its value in the classroom in order to develop appropriate coping strategies and increase self-efficacy, thereby decreasing stress and the risk of burnout and, subsequently, teacher attrition.

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