A “Working” Definition of Depression for the Educator

How Educators Can Recognize and Think About Depression in Students 

Depression is a cluster of behaviors a complexity of symptoms which are intense, severe, pervasive and recurring.

Intensity: “It feels so bad it hurts.” … “I just can’t stand it.”
Recurring: The experience of sadness recurs over time.

Children who are mildly depressed will report that the feelings associated with depression will often be familiar to them from past experiences. Students with more major depression may report that it feels different from any other feeling they have encountered in their past experiences.

Severity: The severity of depression – a depressed experience – is a function of the amount of time a child is aware of the sad feelings during the day. Are the feelings fleeting? Do they occur for a major portion of the day? Do the feelings distract the child from thinking about other things?

Major Depression: Five depression characteristics are reported every day for two weeks. (Generally little variation in respect to changes in environment).
Depression/Depressed Mood (Dysthymia)
: Three depression characteristics are reported for over a year, often weeks apart.
: Depression feelings occur in most situations and most environments. The degree to which the feeling of sadness is influenced by the environment is an indicator of the severity of the feelings. Less severe feeling of sadness and sadness brought about by external events or situations will vary as the child moves through the different environments of his or her life. In more severe depression the mood does not significantly vary in respect to the environment. This may also indicate a biological base to the depression.

How Educators Can Recognize and Think About Depression in Students

The Characteristics of Depression in Children

  • Affective/Mood:
    • Sad: The child feels down, yucky, weepy
    • The child is angry, irritable
    • The child has a loss of amusement, laughter
    • The child feels guilty
    • The child feels hopeless
  • Cognitive/Thought:
    • The child has difficulty in concentration, is easily distracted, day dreams
    • The child has a difficult time making decisions, indecisiveness
    • The child has morbid ideation, suicidal thoughts
  • Motivation:
    • The child withdraws socially
    • The child has suicidal thoughts and ideation: “I am better off dead” …  “My parents would be happy if I die” …  “I could end the suffering” … (The more specific a plan, the more intense the feeling, the greater is the concern. Let someone responsible know!)
    • Suicidal Behavior (13 deaths per 100,000)
    • The child has decreased academic performance
  • Physical/Vegetative:
  • The child is overly tired, fatigued
  • The child experiences a change in appetite, weight loss or weight gain
  • The child experiences aches and pains
  • The child experiences sleep disturbance or sleep disorders (insomnia or hypersomnia)
  • The child experiences large or small motor agitation or slowness

Educators should not be expected to be diagnosticians or clinicians. The role of the teacher is to:

  • Be knowledgeable about the general symptoms of depression in children.
  • Be alert to potential depression symptoms in a child.
  • Take action by reporting your concerns of the potential depression to pupil services staff and/or administration. Parents need to be informed with caution.
  • Provide information to help monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of depression treatment or therapy.

All that is normal is not pleasant! The presence of depression characteristics may represent adaptations to normal developmental challenges. Severity, intensity and pervasiveness are key in determining the presence of depression in a child.

How Teachers Can Help a Child Who is Suffering From Depression

Recognize which characteristics of depression make teaching difficult. Modify classroom expectations to accommodate to the specific impact of  that characteristic on the teaching/learning process.

  • Mood:
    • Acknowledge that the child is…sad/angry/feeling guilty/hopeless.
    • Help the child recognize that he or she can impact those feelings by becoming competent.
    • Teach the child that he or she can distract themselves from the feeling by concentrating on the tasks of school.
    • Remain creative and generate energy for all children.
    • Stay engaged with the child through eye contact, words and touch.
    • Provide the child with intense, positive regard and acceptance.
  • Thought:
    • Be highly structured in classroom activities for all children.
    • Diminish external distractions as much as possible for the child.
    • Provide all children with limited choices.
    • Enhance clarity of information to impact on its ability to engage the child.
    • Do not be alarmed by content of ideation. Try to redirect the child to more positive frames of reference.
    • Provide the child with external organizers, such as written notes and outlines.
  • Motivation:
    • Set up opportunities for cooperative learning to engage the child with peers.
    • Recognize that sad children may require extra energy input.
    • Use incentive strategies with children to enhance motivation.
    • Recognize that the lack of engagement by the child is a function of the depression and is not a reflection of your teaching skills.
    • Creativity, humor and sensitivity are necessary to engage the child with depression.
    • The quantity and intensity of assignments may have to be limited for children with depression.
    • A child’s homework should be monitored for success and modified as necessary.
    • Provide opportunities for the child’s social skill instruction in the context of the classroom.
    • Seek out opportunities for positive feedback from all children.


  • Environments may have to be modified to limit fatigue and encourage healthy physical habits for all children – especially a child suffering with depression.
  • Provide all children opportunities for exercise.
  • Provide children with safe havens for the release of emotions or physical stress.

General Concepts for Classroom Support:

  • Have a firm, orderly classroom environment for all children – especially a child suffering with depression. Let school become an island of calm and safety in a sea of chaos.
  • Reframe and positively manage change for the child as an opportunity to grow.
  • Teach the child goal setting.
  • Teach the child how to establish priorities.
  • Teach the child the power of self-talk.
  • Acknowledge the “right” to be a child. Precociousness is stressful: having developed certain abilities or inclinations at an earlier age than is usually expected.
  • Establish classroom traditions and rituals for all children.
  • Maintain a broad, developmental framework with which to judge normality for the child.

Teach Children Problem Evaluation to Determine who Owns the Problem and who is Responsible for What Behavior.

Teach a Problem Solving Strategy:

  • Identify the problem
  • Brainstorm solutions
  • Evaluate alternatives and pick a course of action
  • Determine effectiveness of interventions
  • Teach, expect and provide courtesy, manners and personal respect
  • Foster the ability to enjoy working and playing

Teach Children to Identify Their Assets:

  • We are hardworking children and students.
  • We are children and students who have good thinking abilities and imaginations.
  • We are dependable and responsible children, students, friends and family members.
  • We are organized, efficient and practical children and students.
  • We are persistent, persevering and steadfast friends, students and family members.
  • We try to do the healthy and right thing for ourselves, our family, and our classroom.
  • We are loving, caring, loyal and considerate children, students, friends and family members.
  • We are givers and helpers to our classroom, family and local community.

– by Frank Doberman, PhD

Dr. Frank Doberman is Co-Founder of Karner Psychological Associates (KPA) and is a leader in the fields of clinical psychology, is a Licensed Psychologist, Certified in School Psychology, Educational Administration and is a regular contributor to News 10 WTEN.

Copyright © 2011 Karner Psychological Associates | All Rights Reserved.