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Academic Problems In First Grade Linked To Depression In Middle School

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

Black first-graders – especially girls – who are already performing poorly in school are at risk of being depressed by the time they reach junior high, according to an analysis of hundreds of African-American students in Baltimore. Therefore, researchers say, focusing early on what such youngsters are doing well may help build self-esteem and guard against a downward spiral.

The study's findings are in the July issue of the Journal of Counseling Psychology, which is published by the American Psychological Association. This is the first time psychologists have examined the link between academic performance and depressive cognitions for African-American children living in an urban setting. The study's lead author Keith Herman, PhD, says his findings are similar to previous studies findings on white children and children from other ethnic backgrounds.

“Given the well-documented achievement disparities between African-American children and other groups of children in the United States, these findings have strong implications for identifying and treating academic problems in African-American children,” said Herman. “Educators and parents need to understand that academic problems early on can be warning signs of distress. Mental health problems are less likely to develop if children are shown how to manage, or overcome, their anxiety, sadness and frustration from their academic challenges.”

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Psychologists examined data from a longitudinal study of 474 African-American boys and girls in nine Baltimore public schools. The students were assessed in first, sixth and seventh grades for the study.

The authors examined the students' performance on a basic skills test administered in first grade to determine how well the students were doing in reading and mathematics. The first-graders were also asked how frequently they felt sad, anxious or upset. The authors compared these findings with the students' self-reports of depressive symptoms after they had entered seventh grade. The authors noted that prior research found that depressive symptoms in children and adolescents predicted the likelihood of using mental health services, of contemplating suicide, and of being diagnosed with depression later in life.

The authors found that the students who performed below average on the basic skills test in first grade were more likely to experience depressive symptoms by the time they had entered seventh grade, while controlling for conduct, attention and social problems.

The authors also looked at data collected in sixth grade, which measured how much control the students felt they had over their academic, social and behavioral skills. Using this information, the researchers determined that first-graders who were struggling in school were most likely to believe that they had less influence over important outcomes in their life. These beliefs, in turn, served as risk factors for depressive symptoms. The negative effects of low academic skills on future self-beliefs were roughly twice as strong for girls as for boys.

“Girls tend to internalize academic problems more than boys,” said Herman. “It is critical for counselors and psychologists who are working with underachieving African-American youth to find ways to highlight their nonacademic skills, such as social, music or art abilities, and work with their parents and teachers to do the same. This may help improve their present and future emotional well-being.”