Teacher Response to Anxiety in Autism Differs from Preschool to Primary School Years

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Regarding teachers’ responses to handle anxiety in students with autism spectrum disorder, 33.3% teachers promote anxiety and 37.1% promote autonomy.

Teacher Response to Anxiety in Autism Differs from Preschool to Primary School Years

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For students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who experience clinical anxiety symptoms, preschool and primary school teachers respond differently to anxiety behaviors, according to a new study. Responses can either help (autonomy-promoting) or harm (anxiety-promoting) students.1

According to prior research, 40% to 70% of children with ASD have clinical symptoms of anxiety—yet little research had previously been explored on how teachers’ respond to this kind of behavior in the classroom.2,3

The study, led by Osvaldo Hernández González, MS, of the Institute of Humanistic Studies Juan Ignacio Molina at Universidad de Talca in Talca, Chile, found that while preschool teachers respond to student’s generalized anxiety, separation anxiety, and social anxiety by reinforcing anxiety (P < .05), primary school teachers are more likely to respond to same behavior by reinforcing autonomy (P <.05).1

“Findings show that teachers' responses vary in relation to age, experience in inclusive schools, specific training for teaching students with ASD and teaching stage, as well as the type of anxiety,” the team wrote “These findings follow the same direction as the exploratory study conducted by Adams et al. (2019), which revealed how teachers are more likely to respond differently to the anxiety related behaviours of students with ASD (vs. neurotypical students) and concluded that the type of anxiety is a determining variable.”

The descriptive, comparative, correlational, cross-sectional study focused on assessing how teachers would respond to anxiety behaviors in students with ASD, how well-informed they are about ASD, and their emotional regulation. All the 139 teachers included in the study worked with at least 1 student with ASD. The teachers worked in 47 inclusive preschools and primary schools. The data was collected from April and May 2021 and August 2022, and the teachers’ completed the evaluations during class hours.

Teachers completed several questionnaires to gather information on gender, age, inclusive context experience, specific ASD training, and teaching stage.

The questionnaires were as followed:

  • The Autism Knowledge Questionnaire (AKQ): Assessing teachers’ ASD knowledge.
  • Emotional Regulation Questionnaire (ERQ): Testing for 2 emotional regulation strategies: cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression of emotions.
  • Teacher Responses to Anxiety in Children Questionnaire (TRAC): Assessing teachers’ responses toward the anxiety of students with ASD. Teachers had to respond to hypothetical scenarios that either reinforced anxiety (overprotection, sanctions and criticisms, and reinforcement of anxious behavior), or reinforced autonomy (rewarding of independence or courage, as encouragement to face fears, and problem-solving skills). With each scenario, teachers had to state how likely they would respond to a child’s anxiety using the 6 responses on a 7-point scale.

The anxiety subscale scores revealed teachers >30 years old were significantly more likely to respond with anxiety-promoting for behaviors reflecting generalized anxiety and separation anxiety (P < .05)—but not for social anxiety. They were also more likely to report overprotective responses toward generalized anxiety and avoidant reinforcement to separation anxiety (P < .05).

Meanwhile, preschool teachers were significantly more likely to respond anxiety-promoting for behaviors reflecting generalized anxiety, separation anxiety, and social anxiety (P < .05). They also reported that they were more likely to use sanctions and criticism responses for generalized anxiety and separation anxiety, as well as avoidance reinforcement for generalized anxiety and social anxiety.

Though, when looking specifically at autonomy-promoting responses, the team found that primary school teachers were significantly more likely to respond with autonomy-promoting responses towards behaviors reflecting separation and social anxiety (P < .05). The significant difference did not include generalized anxiety.

Overall, most of the evidence supported the 6 hypotheses. The data supported the hypothesis that teachers’ knowledge of ASD would be negatively connected to the anxiety-promoting responses of students with ASD (P < .05), teachers’ cognitive reappraisal of emotions would be negatively connected to the responses that promote anxiety, and teachers’ cognitive reappraisal of emotions would be positively connected to responses that promote autonomy, expressive suppression of teachers’ emotions would be positively connected to responses that promote anxiety, and expressive suppression would be negatively connected to responses that promote autonomy .The data, however, rejected the hypothesis that stated the teachers’ knowledge of ASD would be positively related to the responses that promote autonomy.

Ultimately, 33.3% teachers promoted anxiety and 37.1% promoted autonomy.

“Preschool teachers were more likely to use anxiety-reinforcing responses towards behaviours that indicate generalized anxiety, separation anxiety and social anxiety (P < 0.05),” the investigators wrote. “On the contrary, primary school teachers were more likely to use autonomypromoting responses towards these same behaviours (P < 0.05).”

The investigators continued by stating that multiple reasons exist why primary teachers may respond to the anxiety of a student with ASD differently from preschool teachers.

“It is very likely that there is more training in primary schools on the challenges of educating a student with autism compared to preschool teachers,” the investigators concluded. “It is necessary to continue studying the role of the teaching stage in teachers' inclusive pedagogical work and complement it with mixed and/or qualitative methods.”

References

  1. Understanding Teachers’ Responses to Anxiety in Children with Autism at Elementary Schools and Preschools. Nason. 2023. Assessed October 11, 2023. DOI: 10.1111/1471-3802.12625
  2. Hollocks, M.J., Lerh, J.W., Magiati, I., Meiser-Stedman,R. &Brugha, T.S. (2019) Anxiety and depression in adults with autism spectrum disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis.Psychological Medicine, 49(4), 559–572. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033 29171 8002283
  3. 3.van Steensel, F.J. & Heeman, E.J. (2017) Anxiety levels in children with autism spectrum disorder: a meta-analysis. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 26(7), 1753–1767. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/s1082 6-017-0687-7
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