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Pathways to Working Alliances: Special Educators’ Emotional Labor and Relationships With Students With Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

by Michael Valenti, Elizabeth Levine Brown, Christy Galletta Horner, Duhita Mahatmya & Jason Colditz - 2019

Background/Context: Research has also shown that educators who are more socially and emotionally competent are more likely to create nurturing relationships and high-quality classroom environments that result in more academic success for students. Despite the importance of teacher-student relationships on student outcomes, limited research has investigated factors that contribute to development of these relationships, particularly for special education teachers (SETs) working with students with emotional/behavioral disorders (EBDs).

Focus of Study: This study explores educators’ emotions in the classroom through emotional labor theory, a framework for understanding how employees engage in the deliberate suppression or expression of emotions to achieve an organization’s goals. We empirically investigate the potential connections between SETs’ perceptions of their administrators’ expectations about emotional displays, SETs’ emotional acting strategies, and teacher-student relationships.

Setting: This study was conducted within three schools in Western Pennsylvania serving students with EBDs in self-contained classrooms.

Participants: Participants included SETs (N = 61) serving K–12 students who have been identified as having EBDs. SET demographics were as follows: 75% female, average age 32 (range 23–51), and 97% Caucasian. Participants averaged 4.62 years of teaching experience with the study site.

Research Design: All SETs reported on their perceptions of emotional labor and their working alliances with each of their students in the fall semester. Students were nested within teachers, so we used multilevel path analyses to estimate mediational effects of emotional display rules and emotional acting on the teacher-student working alliance.

Results: The results of this study suggest important connections between SETs’ perceptions of emotional display rules, their use of emotional acting strategies, and their working alliances with students with EBDs. Specifically, SETs’ reported perceptions of negative display rules affected how they engaged in surface acting when interacting with students. SETs’ ratings of surface acting were associated with their working alliance tasks scores.

Conclusions/Recommendations: These findings confirm recent research showing that educators engage in emotional acting and that some dimensions of this acting contribute to their relationships with students. Our findings may also suggest that surface acting is an acceptable emotional acting strategy that supports SETs’ relationships with students. Because the emotional labor research in special education has yet to extrapolate on what display rules lead to the emotional acting strategies that the organization desires, how we make these rules more explicit could help teachers establish more sensibility regarding this area of their job.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 7, 2019, p. 1-24
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22691, Date Accessed: 7/30/2021 6:55:15 AM

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About the Author
  • Michael Valenti
    University of Pittsburgh
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL VALENTI has a doctorate in applied developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh and is the senior research coordinator in the Organizational Performance Department at Pressley Ridge. His current practical work includes program evaluation in the nonprofit sector, establishing quality improvement frameworks for systems of care, and coordinating grant activities. Michael also designs and leads several ongoing, longitudinal research projects. His research interests include effective behavioral assessment/planning, staff and client perceptions of the working alliance, and examining emotional labor and collaboration in special education settings.
  • Elizabeth Brown
    George Mason University
    E-mail Author
    ELIZABETH LEVINE BROWN has been an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) at George Mason University since August 2011. Grounded in an ecological systems perspective, Brown's research and scholarship focuses on developmental (i.e., social and emotional) and psychosocial influences on learning for marginalized children across PreK–12 schooling. Specifically, her agenda investigates the developmental and psychosocial competencies (e.g., socioemotional, school mental health) of teachers and students that shape children and youth’s developmental and academic outcomes over time. With more than 40% of U.S. children living in low-income families, coupled with staggering turnover rates in education, Brown's research centers on exploring these concepts among diverse, low-income communities, particularly in our most vulnerable schools. Dr. Brown affiliates with elementary education (ELED) and human development and family science (HDFS) programs and teaches courses in child development, curriculum, foundations, research methods, and individual and family development.
  • Christy Galletta Horner
    Bowling Green State University
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTY GALLETTA HORNER is an assistant professor of assessment, research, and applied statistics at Bowling Green State University. She earned a PhD at the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied applied developmental psychology and research methods in the School of Education. Her research focuses on the role of emotional culture in the promotion of healthy individual and social functioning. Viewing emotions as sociocultural in nature, she prioritizes youths’ perspectives while also seeking to uncover quantifiable links between emotion-related constructs and developmental outcomes. She often uses mixed-methods designs and creative methodological approaches to address the challenges involved in this line of inquiry. Her aim is to find ways that emotional transactions can be leveraged in settings such as schools, after-school programs, and social media sites to help youth thrive in their environments.
  • Duhita Mahatmya
    University of Iowa
    E-mail Author
    DUHITA MAHATMYA received her BS in psychology from Drake University and her MS and PhD in human development and family studies from Iowa State University. She is currently an assistant research scientist in the College of Education at the University of Iowa. Her research examines how family, school, and community environments shape the attainment of developmental milestones from early childhood to young adulthood.
  • Jason Colditz
    University of Pittsburgh
    E-mail Author
    JASON COLDITZ is a PhD scholar in clinical and translational science at the University of Pittsburgh. He completed his MEd in social and comparative analysis in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Administrative and Policy Studies. Jason currently works in Pitt’s School of Medicine as a program coordinator at the Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health. In this role, he directs interdisciplinary efforts in analyzing health-related data from the Twitter social media platform and manages Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center resources for the Center. He is also active in local nonprofit organizations that focus on community-centric revitalization and evidence-based behavioral health care.
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