Socio-emotional skills protect adolescent pupils from burnout and increase engagement

Adolescents’ wellbeing in school is supported by important socio-emotional skills, including curiosity, grit, resilience, as well as social skills and belongingness.

One-third of Finnish general upper secondary school pupils feel enthusiastic about their studies, while half of them suffer from stress and one-fifth have severe burnout. These are findings from a study conducted by Katariina Salmela-Aro and Katja Upadyaya, in which 1,038 pupils took part in spring 2019.

Based on the results, the researchers defined three school wellbeing profiles relative to school engagement, burnout and studyholism: engaged (34%), stressed (47%) and burnt out (19%).

The findings illustrate the power of socio-emotional skills: the pupils who reported being more gritty, curious and resilient, were also more likely to belong to the group of engaged pupils, while those with burnout were identified as having the least experience of grit, belongingness and resilience.

Teenagers are well equipped to learn socio-emotional skills

“A worrying number of general upper secondary school pupils are exhausted. At the same time, a positive finding was the fact that socio-emotional skills can protect pupils,” says Professor of Education Katariina Salmela-Aro from the University of Helsinki.

“In fact, developing socio-emotional skills in school should be in the focus alongside academic skills. They develop particularly during adolescence.”

With the help of exercises, pupils can learn to control their emotions and alter their thinking. For example, outlooks related to stress should be developed so that stress does not cause anxiety or apathy. Instead, pupils can learn to channel the energy generated by stress to learning.

“A curious mind increases the will to learn and know more. That way, stress can be directed towards learning, and energy is not wasted on ruminating and brooding over things, which further aggravates burnout,” Salmela-Aro describes.

Emotions are contagious in groups, which is why exhausted pupils should not be assigned to work in the same group. Worn out pupils brooding over something together may further increase feelings of exhaustion among the individuals.

For some, the problem is alleviated when their personal identity develops and they find a direction
for their life, potentially also resulting in the feelings of burnout subsiding.

Challenging coronavirus spring

What kind of an effect did the coronavirus spring of 2020, during which teaching was organised remotely, have on the wellbeing of Finnish general upper secondary school pupils? Salmela-Aro investigated the matter in May, and she is now working on a related scientific article.

“Pupils’ socio-emotional skills were put to the test in the spring, genuinely highlighting their significance. Pupils had to face setbacks and adapt to new practices. Those who were the most successful in adapting to the new circumstances most likely came out of the exceptional circumstances with the least problems.”

Information about the publication: Katariina Salmela-Aro and Katja Upadyaya (2020): School engagement and burnout profiles during high school –The role of socio-emotional skills. European Journal of Developmental Psychology.

The study was carried out under the Bridging the Gaps project funded by the Academy of Finland.