Depression in Children: What Teachers Should Know

Michele Snoke
Michele Snoke
Elementary school principal; M.S.E. in Educational Leadership

Teachers may be the person to notice mild to significant changes in students that could later be diagnosed as depression. Teachers have many gifts, caring deeply about students, and pay close attention to students’ academic achievements along with unexpected challenges.

What Does Depression in Children Look Like?

Symptoms of depression in children vary in PK students to seniors in high school. Teachers may notice all or some of the following changes in a student when in the classroom:

Cognitive

  • Memory difficulties
  • Difficulty concentrating or completing assignments
  • Struggle to make decisions
  • Possible decline in self-esteem or risky behavior
  • Sense of losing control in situations
  • Thoughts of suicide

Physiological

  • Loss of appetite
  • Trouble sleeping or fatigue
  • Frequent physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches
  • Low energy

Behavioral

  • Disinterested in an activity the student has always enjoyed
  • Social withdrawal
  • Lack of self-motivation
  • Decline in personal appearance
  • Irritability
  • Hypersensitivity
  • Crying for no reason

Students can experience all or only a few of these childhood depression symptoms. However, each sign of depression in children can be noticed by a teacher in the classroom.

How Depression Can Impact Student Learning

An unnoticed and extremely important responsibility of a teacher is to finish the school year with a class of confident learners. Teachers must nurture, guide, and encourage their students, allowing them to become confident learners. A confident student learns, accepts challenges with patience, and doesn’t give up. When a child feels any one of the cognitive symptoms of depression, it can affect their confidence. Students challenged with retaining instruction because of memory difficulties or trouble concentrating may see a decline in their achievement.

Teachers see many students become distracted during guided and independent instruction, and many attribute easily distracted behaviors to Attention Deficient Disorder. Sudden and uncharacteristic distractibility in students can be a warning sign of depression. The buildup of incomplete or missing assignments causes a student suffering from depression to struggle with creating and executing a plan to handle completing the missed assignments. The student may find trouble with making a decision when choosing a direction that will lead to achievement.

All of these feelings contribute to a sense of losing control. When loss of control overcomes a child with depression, there is a possibility for the child to begin to have thoughts of suicide. One last noticeable difference in students with depression is the obvious decline in self-esteem and lack of desire to take academic risks.

Some physiological symptoms of depression can be easier for a teacher to notice. Students that repeatedly avoid eating lunch or a mid-day snack are noticed by a teacher. Students that fall asleep in their seat or lag behind the other students when lining up for a transition are made obvious. Many times during a school day students suffering with depression may have unexplained headaches and/or stomach aches. These students often visit the school nurse frequently, and upon reviewing the student’s physical ailments, the result does not involve any physical medical concern.

Behavioral symptoms can be the most embarrassing for a student with depression and challenging for a teacher. An irritable student may become tearful over a simple task that does not result with an acceptable grade viewed by the student only. The image of being hypersensitive to high achievement may lead parents to react by questioning if the student is a “perfectionist,” when actually the child may be expressing a symptom of depression.

Erratic emotions, such as crying, yelling out, or frustrated emotions in children over simple assignments is alarming to a teacher and deflating for a student. These emotions may lead a student to withdraw from their peers and develop separation from previous interests. In the end, a child with depression can feel a complete lack of motivation and loss as to how to feel “good” again.

Cognitively, physiologically, or behavioral changes can be seen individually or collectively, but each symptom contributes to an unconfident student. The decline in confidence alters progress in a student’s learning. Teachers are also tasked with the challenge to focus on students already diagnosed with learning disabilities, as these students may also experience feelings of depression due to the struggles experienced in the classroom.

Teaching Strategies to Use in the Classroom

Upon noticing a student’s change that could possibly be depression, a teacher can assist the student with any of the following strategies:

  • Be an active listener
  • Assist with time management strategies such as checklists, timers, or the Pomordoro technique
  • Frequently checking in with the student to talk and listen
  • Provide study guides for tests, print notes, or record instruction
  • Keep open lines of communication with student’s parents, provide weekly progress emails
  • Offer small social groups for students at lunch
  • Encouragement with student’s outside interests

As soon as a teacher consistently recognizes symptoms of childhood depression in a student, the parents should be immediately contacted. In schools where a counselor is a member of the faculty, the teacher should request the counselor be present at the parent meeting. The school nurse can also be a strong ally for the teacher while meeting with the student’s parents. The objective for a parent meeting is to guide the parents to find outside counseling and/or other necessary psycho-educational testing if necessary. All testing results will provide schools with the ability to write an IEP for the student to receive accommodations and/or modifications to assist the student in the classroom.

Teachers must be positive cheerleaders for their students and must give genuine support and dedication to building the confidence of their students. While keeping an eye and ear open for students challenged with sad or demoralizing thoughts is difficult, it is truly important. It is a sad but realistic fact that students suffer from depression, but with early detection, support from professionals, possible medication, and the love of a good teacher, students can feel supported with learning to navigate their feelings and struggle less.

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