Childhood depression is a growing problem among children in grade school. A new study from childhood education and mental health experts has found that children who do not receive adequate exposure to language early in life and who have poor language skills by the 1st grade are three times more likely to experience symptoms of depression by the 3rd grade.
I had a chance to interview the lead researcher, Dr. Herman, to learn more.
What is the link between language skills and depression?
Low language skills increases the risk for depression in childhood (three-fold, in our study). Theory and prior research suggests this because language sets children up for success in social and academic domains. Child who struggle in these areas receive negative feedback from teachers and peers (social judgements) that they come to internalize.
If a child has depression caused by poor language skills, what can parents do?
The big idea of the study was to trace the roots of this link to the toddler years. We found that low language/academic stimulation in the home increased risk for depression at age 8. The reason for this is because low stimulation leads to poor language skills at school entry and in turn depression at age 8. This suggests that one way parents can help prevent this problem is to provide high levels of language stimulation early in life (language rich environments, exposure to printed text, narrating child/parent interactions).
If a parent has a child who is already depressed and had language skill problems they should seek services for their child. School is a good place to start. If a child with language problems has not been identified by the school as needing language support a parent should connect with the student support team in the child’s school; ideally a speech and language therapist as well. Early intervention of language problems is highly successful. I would also ask for support from the school psychologist or school counselor to evaluate other risk areas associated with depression including academic and social problems and develop a plan to remediate any identified concerns.
How can parents help make sure their child's language skills are developing appropriately?
Repeating the answer above, providing language rich environments and exposing children to academic stimulation early and often prior to school entry is important. If a parent has any concerns about language development there are service providers in all communities who they can reach out to for an evaluation at any stage of development.
How can teachers be aware of early signs of depression?
Teachers often miss depressive symptoms in kids. Irritability is a leading symptom of depression in youth so that is one signal to pay attention. Social withdrawal, low levels of participation/enthusiasm, flat emotional expression, somatic complaints are other common symptoms in children in addition to those seen in adults (sadness, loss of interest in pleasureable events, changes in eating/sleeping, expressions of worthlessness/guilt, thoughts of self harm).
Often these are children who are quiet and who go unnoticed. I would get in the habit of noticing kids with underdeveloped social skills (either because of inhibition or poor self-regulation) and kids who are struggling academically and ask the next question which is how are these negative social and academic experiences impacting the child’s emerging sense of self. While not all children who struggle in these areas are depressed, many are. Depression is also linked to other common emotional and behavioral issues (e.g., children who are anxious, who have attention or behavior control problems are also at higher risk for depression)—so these problems can also serve as a signal to wonder if the child with these concerns is also depressed.
What can teachers do to make sure language skills develop in students?
Similarly, language rich environments, fun word games, narration, acting, and monitoring the development of language and quickly referring students who they have concerns about.