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Cognitive Flexibility Reduces Teachers’ Stress

Adjusting perceptions, beliefs and behavior to different situations was found to protect teachers from post-traumatic symptoms, in a study by Prof. Einat Levy-Gigi, a psychologist & neuroscientist of the BIU Faculty of Education


As part of their work, educators are often exposed to various stressful events, including violence, sexual assault and suicidal behavior, as well as death or illness.

One of the main consequences of exposure to stressful events on a daily basis is the development of symptoms such as unwanted memories, avoidance, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, negative beliefs towards the world, and mood swings. These symptoms may have a detrimental effect on teachers' daily functioning and health.

A series of studies led by Prof. Einat Levy-Gigi, a psychologist and neuroscientist, Head of the Educational Counseling Program and of the Trauma, Coping and Growth Laboratory at the Faculty of Education of Bar-Ilan University, shows that cognitive flexibility helps deal with the consequences of continuous exposure to stress.

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to modify beliefs, perceptions, and behaviors according to the demands of changing reality. In the context of the school setting, this can be the ability to alter teaching methods according to the needs of students; to offer content that may be of interest to different groups at different times; or to know when to be tough or demonstrate a softer approach. A recently-published study in Scientific Reports, led by Levy-Gigi and her partners, Orli Harel and Alla Hemi, examined, for the first time, the effect of exposure to stress in schools and cognitive flexibility on post-traumatic symptoms developed among education and teaching staff.

Findings show that teachers are indeed exposed to high levels of stress in their work and that these events lead to the development of post-traumatic symptoms. However, there was great variation in the level of symptoms, which was explained by cognitive flexibility, which moderated the relationship between exposure to school-related stress and the severity of post-traumatic symptoms.

According to the researchers, awareness to the essential role of cognitive flexibility as a protective factor for educators may be a breakthrough tool in improving teachers' wellbeing and developing flexible coping methods that optimize their performance.

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