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Stress and Depression

The Role of Stress in Depression, The Impact on Academic Functioning and Educational Progress

Children's success in their educational endeavors and their general socioemotional adjustment are influenced by a variety of personal characteristics and environmental experiences. One of the most powerful determinants of children's developmental course is the social context in which they live. In particular, experiencing a stable and supportive environment during childhood is likely to foster healthy cognitive, social, and emotional development, whereas experiencing a disruptive or stressful environment has been linked to a wide range of adverse mental health outcomes, including depression. Stress and the accompanying emotional distress may then interfere with some of the major tasks of childhood, such as academic achievement and fulfillment of educational goals.

The Role of Stress in Depression

Theory and empirical research have implicated stress as a critical risk factor for depression during childhood and adolescence. Stress may take the form of an accumulation of minor daily hassles, more severe chronic strains, or specific negative life events. Each of these types of stress has been linked to depression. Stress also may arise from normative developmental transitions, such as entrance into middle school or moving away from home for the first time. For example, research has shown that school transitions, which often are characterized by many social and academic stressors, have negative effects on academic motivation, performance, and school engagement, as well as on emotional well-being. In particular, Karen Rudolph and colleagues demonstrated in 2001 that the experience of school-related stress (such as poor academic performance, negative feedback from parents and teachers about school work, and daily hassles in the school environment) leads to increases in depression in the context of a transition into middle school.

An important question that has not yet been fully answered concerns how stressful life events and circumstances heighten vulnerability to depression. Stress may contribute to depression through many different pathways. Unpredictable or disruptive environments may undermine children's sense of control and mastery, leading to a sense of helplessness or hopelessness that acts as a precursor to depression. For example, Rudolph and colleagues demonstrated in 2001 that family disruption, as well as exposure to chronic stressful circumstances within the family, peer, and school settings, predicted decreases in perceptions of control and increases in helpless behavior in academic and social situations. These maladaptive beliefs and behavior were in turn associated with depression. Exposure to stress and failure also are likely to influence adversely children's perceptions of their competence. For instance, David Cole and colleagues suggested in 1991 that negative environmental feedback is internalized by children in the form of negative self-perceptions and low self-esteem, which then heighten depressive symptoms. Stress within the school environment may exert specific influences on children's academic-related beliefs, self-perceptions, and goals, and, consequently, on emotional well-being at school. As reviewed by Robert Roeser and Jacquelynne Eccles in 2000, classroom-level and school-level stressors involving instructional practices, emotional climate, and teachers' goals and behavior influence children's subjective perceptions of school, which then determine academic and emotional adjustment.

The Impact on Academic Functioning and Educational Progress

Stressful life experiences as well as acute or chronic periods of depression may interrupt the normative progression of developmental milestones. Given the prominent role that schools play in children's lives, the school setting represents a salient context for development and mental health. Stressful experiences and emotional difficulties are therefore likely to undermine a variety of school-related competencies, including academic motivation and school engagement, goal orientation, scholastic performance, and school conduct.

Educational Implications of Stress

Stressful life circumstances may influence school adjustment in many ways. First, dealing with stress in other areas of their lives may interfere directly with children's performance at school by depleting the amount of time, energy, and focused attention available for academic tasks and school involvement, such as completing homework or engaging in after-school activities. Second, exposure to high levels of stress may divert coping resources away from efforts to deal with the challenges of school. This lack of resources may lead adolescents to feel overwhelmed, and create a sense of helplessness that results in disengagement from school. Third, stressful circumstances outside of school may lead children to place less of a priority on educational goals, thereby undermining school investment. Finally, if stress originates within the family setting, it is likely that family members have less availability and lower levels of school involvement, which would diminish emotional and instrumental support necessary for educational success.

Educational Implications of Depression

Depression has been linked to a range of negative school-related outcomes, including poor grades, a lack of persistence in the face of academic challenges, and decreased classroom participation. These effects may range from short-term declines in academic performance to long-term problematic school outcomes. For example, depressive symptoms as early as first grade predict school difficulties many years later, including increased use of special education services, grade retention, and poor grades.

Less is known, however, about how and why depression interferes with school adjustment. The symptoms and accompanying features of depression themselves may have a negative impact on academic achievement and motivation. For example, concentration difficulties, a lack of interest and energy, and withdrawal are likely to undermine performance and engagement at school. Depressive behaviors also may elicit negative reactions from teachers and peers, leading to social isolation and alienation from the school setting. In fact, teachers may feel over-whelmed by the emotional difficulties of their students, leading to low levels of perceived self-efficacy and less than optimal teaching performance. Finally, depression may induce negative beliefs about one's competence and a sense of helplessness, leading to a lack of persistence in academic tasks. Indeed, Carol Dweck and colleagues described in 1988 a profile of "learned helplessness" in achievement contexts, characterized by an avoidance of challenge, lack of persistence in the face of failure, excessive concerns about competence, ineffective learning strategies, maladaptive attributions about failure, and negative emotions. Additional research is needed to determine if in fact this profile characterizes depressed children in the school context.

Remaining Issues

Whether it is most common for academic difficulties to precede depression or for depression to precede academic difficulties has not yet been clearly determined. It also is possible, of course, that the presence of significant academic difficulties in depressed children reflects a common third influence. For example, both depression and academic impairment are linked to behavior problems and attentional deficits. In fact, research has suggested that depression may be most strongly associated with academic stress, failure, and school conduct problems when it cooccurs with acting-out behavior or attentional deficits.

Another important question is why some children who experience high levels of stress or depression show resilience in their school adjustment: A subgroup of high-risk children does show academic success and educational investment in the face of adversity. Many factors may promote such resilience, including personal characteristics of children as well as positive school climates, but additional research is needed to examine this process in more depth.

School-Based Prevention and Intervention Programs

In light of theory and research linking stress and depression with school-related impairment, there has been a call for a new generation of school-based prevention and intervention programs that address the joint issues of academic difficulties and mental health problems. Such programs may range from child-level approaches implemented within the school setting to schoolwide or districtwide approaches directed at systems-level changes.

Several child-level programs have been created to address issues of stress and depression within the school setting. One representative program, developed by Martin Seligman and colleagues, was designed to prevent severe depression in at-risk children–that is, children with elevated levels of depressive symptoms and exposure to family stress–as well as to remediate performance deficits in these children, such as lowered academic achievement and behavior problems. The program emphasized teaching children strategies to cope with stressful events and negative emotions, enhancing children's sense of mastery and competence, and modifying distortions in the ways that children viewed themselves and their surroundings. An extensive evaluation revealed that the program successfully decreased children's level of depressive symptoms and behavior problems. Several similar programs have targeted coping with stress and depression in the school context. These programs tend to yield positive results in terms of decreasing levels of depression, although assessments have not always been conducted to determine why these improvements occur. Less commonly used have been systems-level school-based mental health programs. Such programs focus on promoting change in more distal environmental influences, such as the classroom climate or broader school ecology. Undoubtedly, effectively addressing the complex links among stress, depression, and school adjustment will require an integrated approach that considers both personal resources of children as well as the broader contexts in which they live.


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