When depression strikes teachers, they can suffer mightily, but a new study suggests their students’ ability to learn might also be harmed.
Researchers found a correlation between teachers’ depressive symptoms and math skills in early learners enrolled in Head Start programs. Head Start is a U.S. government program providing early education, nutrition, health and parent support for low-income families.
Teachers’ depressive symptoms were significantly associated with children’s math achievement in Head Start programs. The linkage was through the quality of the teachers’ relationships with the families, which in turn affected young children’s motivation, engagement and persistence in learning, according to the investigators.
The findings were published June 16 in the journal Child Development.
“The results indicate that alleviating Head Start teachers’ depressive symptoms could support positive family-teacher relationships, as well as gains in children’s approaches to learning and thereby their mathematical skills,” said lead author Shinyoung Jeon, senior research and policy associate at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa Early Childhood Education Institute.
“More research is needed to understand the best mechanisms through which to reduce Head Start teachers’ depressive symptoms, and more investment is needed in support of teachers’ mental well-being,” Jeon said in a journal news release. “Interventions that pair support for teachers’ psychological well-being along with emphasis on building high-quality family-teacher relationships, may benefit children’s learning and development.”
The study used data from the nationally representative Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey 2014. This survey collected information on Head Start children, families, teachers, classroom quality and programs through direct child assessments, teacher surveys, parent surveys, classroom observation and director surveys.
Researchers included a sample of more than 1,500 children from 212 classroom in 113 centers at 59 Head Start programs in the United States. Children were from diverse ethnicities, including 27% White, 24% Black, 41% Hispanic/Latino, and 8% from other racial or ethnic groups.
The findings showed that teachers with higher levels of depressive symptoms reported more negative relationships with families. Evidence suggested that family-teacher relationships were indirectly linked to math skills through children’s approach to learning, though the study only found an association, and not a cause-and-effect link.
“Since we focused on Head Start children from low-income families, our study adds to the existing literature by identifying possible associations between a teacher’s mental well-being and children’s academic achievement that function via the quality of the teacher-parent relationship,” said co-author Lieny Jeon, associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Education in Baltimore. “The study findings support Head Start’s strong emphasis on family partnerships as a way to enhance Head Start children’s learning behaviors and their subsequent effects on academic achievement.”
The authors noted the study had some limitations, including that some of the data was self-reported.
The organization Zero to Three offers tips for building early math skills.
SOURCE: Child Development, news release, June 16, 2021