Cognitive flexibility moderates teachers’ stress - Bar-Ilan U study

A new study coming out of Bar-Ilan University argues that adaptability is the key to teachers avoiding excess stress in the classroom.

 Students sitting in a classroom in Israel. (photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
Students sitting in a classroom in Israel.
(photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)

A series of studies led by Prof. Einat Levy-Gigi, a psychologist and neuroscientist from the Faculty of Education at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, shows that “cognitive flexibility” is an important tool that helps us deal with the consequences of continuous exposure to stress.

Cognitive flexibility expresses the ability to update beliefs, perceptions, and behaviors according to the demands of a changing reality. In the context of the school setting, this can be expressed (among other things) in the ability to change teaching methods according to the needs of pupils and in the ability to offer content that may be of interest to different groups at different times or, alternatively, to know when to act harshly and when to demonstrate a softer and more considerate attitude, when to raise one’s voice and when to maintain restraint.

A new study published in the online journal Scientific Reports entitled “The role of cognitive flexibility in moderating the effect of school-related stress exposure” and led by Levy-Gigi and her partners, Orli Harel and Alla Hemi examined for the first time the interactive effect of exposure to stress in the school setting and cognitive flexibility on the tendency to develop PTSD symptoms among education and teaching staff.

Previous research

In previous studies among first responders, it was similarly found that cognitive flexibility helps protect against negative consequences of exposure to stress and trauma and may lead to optimal functioning even when the reality is challenging and complex.

A total of 150 teachers and other educators (85% women and 15% men with an average age of 43 and average teaching experience of 13 years) volunteered to participate in the study and underwent an assessment of their exposure to stress, their cognitive flexibility, their ability to cope, and their level of PTSD symptoms.

Bar Ilan University, engineering department (credit: BAR ILAN UNIVERSITY/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Bar Ilan University, engineering department (credit: BAR ILAN UNIVERSITY/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Analysis of the data showed that teachers are indeed exposed to high levels of stress in their work and that these events lead to the development of PTSD symptoms. At the same time, it found a great variation in the level of symptoms; while some teachers showed low or moderate levels, others exhibited high levels. Follow-up analyses showed that cognitive flexibility can explain this variation since it moderated the relationship between exposure to school-related stress and the severity of PTSD symptoms.

Therefore, among teachers with low cognitive flexibility, a distinct positive relationship was found between continuous exposure to stress and increased post-traumatic symptoms. On the other hand, among teachers with high cognitive flexibility, no similar relationship was found. This group maintained a low level of symptoms regardless of the number of stressful events to which they were exposed. These findings are consistent with those of similar studies conducted among first responders.

The results emphasize the importance of cognitive flexibility as a protective factor against the harmful effects of exposure to stress within the school framework. According to the researchers, awareness of the essential role of cognitive flexibility as a protective factor for educators may be a breakthrough in improving teachers’ well-being and developing adaptive coping that will enable optimal functioning at school.

Follow-up studies conducted at the Laboratory for Trauma Coping and Growth led by Levy-Gigi showed that an intervention that combines artificial intelligence and cognitive exercise significantly improves cognitive flexibility and may lead to significant relief of symptoms and improvement of daily functioning among various populations that experience stress as part of their daily routine.