Elementary school teachers who have more symptoms of depression may have a negative influence on some students' academic performance, a new study suggests.
In the small study, third-grade teachers who were struggling with symptoms of depression — such as poor appetite, restless sleep, crying spells and feeling like a failure — were generally less likely to create and maintain a high-quality classroom environment for their students compared with teachers who had fewer signs of depression.
The research also showed that students who had weak math skills tended to be more affected by their teachers' depressive symptoms and the poorer-quality classroom environment. In contrast, the performance of their classmates with stronger math skills was not affected by the learning environment.
"Our study suggests that depression in teachers is not only a personal struggle, but could potentially impact the learning experiences of students," said study researcher Leigh McLean, a doctoral student in psychology at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Teaching is one of the most stressful occupations in America, yet relatively little is done to ensure that teachers have the resources they need to cope with this stress successfully, McLean told Live Science. [10 Scientific Tips for Raising Happy Kids]
In the study, the researchers looked at 27 teachers and 523 third-graders at eight schools in a Florida school district. The teachers filled out a questionnaire evaluating their risk for depression based on their symptoms, and trained observers used videotapes of the teachers in action to rate the quality of the learning environment inside each classroom. Observers had no prior knowledge of the teachers self-reported depressive symptoms.
Although the findings revealed that teachers in the study with more symptoms of depression had a negative influence on students having trouble with math, a similar effect was not seen in children's reading skills. The researchers suggested that elementary school teachers may feel more confident in their abilities to teach reading than math, and also pointed to a new core math curriculum introduced that year as possible explanations for the different results.
The findings are published today (Feb. 11) in the journal Child Development.
Few studies have examined the role of teachers' depression in students' academic performance. Yet, teachers face a daily grind of stress-inducing pressures, from managing behavioral problems in the classroom to working with difficult parents, that might make them prone to depression.
These findings provide intriguing evidence that our nation's teachers are in need of more support in their work-related mental health, McLean said. "Unfortunately, there are few to no support systems provided by schools to aid teachers in their mental health struggles," she added.
With few policies or practices to assist teachers struggling with occupational stress or depression, they currently need to seek help outside of work to obtain a diagnosis or counseling.
McLean suggested that in-school counseling options for teachers, mentoring programs that focus on coping with work-related stress, and health insurance plans with comprehensive mental health coverage are some potential ways that schools could work toward supporting the psychological needs of teachers.
Although larger studies in varied school settings are needed to learn more about how a teacher's mental health affects student outcomes, McLean said that one of the long-term goals of this research is to develop interventions and professional programs to help teachers learn how to successfully cope with the daily stressors of teaching.
She explained that while an engineer or an architect might be able to take a walk or a coffee break when work stress becomes overwhelming, teachers often do not have this opportunity.
"They have to stay in the classroom and continue teaching in the face of extreme stress," McLean said.
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Cari Nierenberg has been writing about health and wellness topics for online news outlets and print publications for more than two decades. Her work has been published by Live Science, The Washington Post, WebMD, Scientific American, among others. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from Cornell University and a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Communication from Boston University.