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ASU study finds teacher depression affects students' math skills

chalk and eraser on chalkboard
February 11, 2015

Having spent time around teachers all her life, ASU student Leigh McLean noticed an enduring theme, which was that teaching seemed to be an especially stressful occupation. She wondered if this stress put teachers at risk for depression.

“Teachers are thought to act in loco parentis (in the place of a parent), spending hours with young children and young adults, as well as other school officials and parents,” said McLean, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in psychology at Arizona State University's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “After a particularly stressful situation at work, they don’t have the option to make a coffee run or take a walk like a normal office worker.”

McLean had read about the effect of mothers’ depression on children. She wondered if there was a similar effect at play in classrooms.

How do elementary school teachers’ depressive symptoms relate to the quality of their classroom learning environment, and consequently, their students’ performance in math and reading?

McLean decided to look into it along with her mentor and co-author Carol Connor, a psychology professor and senior learning scientist at ASU Learning Sciences Institute. They collected data from a sample that consisted of 27 teachers and their 523 third-grade students across eight schools in Florida.

Using an adapted version of the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale, McLean measured the teachers’ self-reported depressive symptoms throughout the year. Students’ performance in mathematics and reading was assessed yearly.

In research published in the prestigious journal Child Development, McLean and Connor discussed the findings.

“We found that teachers reporting more depressive symptoms were less likely to maintain high-quality classroom learning environments,” said McLean.

The study revealed that students who began the year with weaker math skills were more vulnerable to this relation, achieving smaller mathematics gains in classrooms where teachers reported more depressive symptoms. Their peers with weaker math skills achieved more in higher-quality classrooms with less depressed teachers. This pattern was not observed for reading skills.

“Thus, the teachers’ depression and students’ poor math outcomes may form a loop and continue to reinforce each other,” said Connor.

The researchers recommend that mental health support systems, coupled with professional development to improve teacher and classroom quality, can help interrupt this loop and be effective in ensuring a high-quality learning environment.

“While most interventions at the K-12 level seem to be directed at the students, our research shows that providing mental health support systems for educators will not only benefit them, but also the students they work with on a daily basis,” said McLean and Connor.