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The Relationship Between Teacher Depression and Student Behavior

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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The Mood Makes the Class

In an article published in 2014 in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology entitled “Pathways From Teacher Depression and Child-Care Quality to Child Behavioral Problems” researchers describe a clear relationship between depression in preschool teachers and emerging behavioral issues displayed by their students. Teachers, parents, and professional child service workers generally recognize that children play out the emotional issues present in the adults with whom they spend their time. However, these observations are, for the most part, both anecdotal and intuitive. This study, authored by Lieny Jeon, Cynthia Buettner, and Anastasia Snyder is the first to offer empirical evidence that depression in preschool teachers has a direct effect on the observed behaviors of preschoolers on standardized externalizing behaviors such as aggression and attention, as well as internalizing behaviors such as anxiety, withdrawal, depression, and emotional reactivity.

Effect of Teacher Depression on Externalizing Behaviors

In this paper, researchers took a close look at two primary externalizing syndromes: attentional problems and aggressive behaviors. It’s important to understand the possible origins of these behaviors in particular because a great number of studies conducted over the past twenty years show that students who develop attentional problems during their preschool years often face academic challenges as early as first and second grade, and students who display atypical aggression during their preschool years often face behavioral and emotional challenges throughout their academic journeys.

As hypothesized by the researchers, the results show that in preschool classrooms where teachers reported high levels of personal depression, their students likewise displayed higher scores on tests for attention and aggression. when compared to preschool classrooms where teachers reported no personal depression.

Effect of Teacher Depression Internalizing Behaviors

The internalizing syndromes addresses in this study were anxiety, depression, withdrawal, and emotional reactivity. On the whole, these behaviors are more difficult to score objectively than externalizing behaviors. Researchers can time attention. They can observe aggression. But internalizing syndromes are different. They’re subjective, and harder to quantify. For instance, what is withdrawal, and what is simply introspection? What is reactivity, and what is simply excitement? Nevertheless, just as with attention and aggression, it is crucial to analyze and attempt to understand the possible origins of these behaviors in children, as they can often lead to problems with self-esteem, social interactions, and academic motivation later in childhood.

The results of the study show that as with attention and aggression, the students in preschool classrooms with teachers who reported high levels of personal depression displayed higher scores on tests for anxiety, depression, withdrawal, and emotional reactivity.

Possible Explanations

Several theories may explain the data. At the outset, it’s possible that teachers with a highly depressive mood create a negative classroom atmosphere, spend less time engaging with children, and have less energy to give toward identifying initial innocent mischief that eventually transforms into misbehavior. This basic level of inattention and lack of engagement from teachers might also include the absence of appropriate role-modeling, positive reinforcement, and a number of teaching strategies that are considered synonymous with effective classroom management.

It’s also possible that students adopt the negative, depressive attitude of the teacher, resulting in poor emotional regulation and the inability to solve basic problems, navigate simple social situations, and maintain the proactive approach to learning and growing essential for success in a preschool classroom. In short, “Teachers suffering from depression may not have enough energy to manage classroom environments or to provide basic care and learning opportunities for children because they are emotionally exhausted.” (Jeon et al, 2014).

Possible Solutions

In an interview with writer Emily Caldwell published by Ohio State University’s news website, study author Lieny Jeon observed that

“Most training for teachers is about managing the classroom and addressing behavioral problems. They don’t have the time or resources to address their own psychological difficulties, or access to any specialized mental health services.”

In the same article, Jeon’s colleague and co-author Cynthia Buettner states “There’s a real mismatch between the expectations for teachers and what they get paid. They’re frequently low-paid positions with not a lot of respect for the work people do.”

The ultimate goal in addressing questions such as those posed in this study is, of course, improving the classroom environment in order to offer young children a solid, effective foundation for future learning. Preschool teaches not only the basic building blocks for academic study, but also the tools for future social interactions, life coping skills, and general real-world problem solving abilities. When seen in light of these goals, preschool teachers have a very important job that is crucial to the development of children. Yet if they are suffering from depression that can be debilitating, how can they be effective guides for children in these early years?

Help the Helpers

Given the significant role that preschool teachers play in the overall development of young children, this study identifies a critical gap in the professional development opportunities offered preschool teachers and early-age childcare workers. While most professional development workshops for teachers offer strategies for classroom management, behavior management, lesson planning, and ideas for creative and engaging activities, none address the problem the results of this study identify: teacher depression. To improve the quality of instruction for children and better prepare them for productive academic and personal futures, policy makers and school administrators would be well-advised to consider offering all teachers – not just preschool teachers and early childcare professionals – personal counseling and support as part of a comprehensive approach to professional enrichment and development.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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