kitchen table math, the sequel: 7th grade depression starts in first grade

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

7th grade depression starts in first grade

Students’ successes in the first grade can affect more than their future report cards. In a new study, University of Missouri researchers found links among students’ weak academic performance in the first grade, self-perceptions in the sixth grade, and depression symptoms in the seventh grade.

“We found that students in the first grade who struggled academically with core subjects, including reading and math, later displayed negative self-perceptions and symptoms of depression in sixth and seventh grade, respectively,” said Keith Herman, associate professor of education, school and counseling psychology in the MU College of Education. “Often, children with poor academic skills believe they have less influence on important outcomes in their life. Poor academic skills can influence how children view themselves as students and as social beings.”

In the study, MU researchers examined the behaviors of 474 boys and girls in the first grade and re-examined the students when they entered middle school. Herman found that students who struggled academically with core subjects, such as reading and math, in the first grade later showed risk factors for negative self-beliefs and depressive symptoms as they entered sixth and seventh grade. Herman suggests that because differences in children’s learning will continue to exist even if all students are given effective instruction and support, parents and teachers should acknowledge student’s skills in other areas.

Recognizing Children's Successes In All Areas May Prevent Teenage Depression

This is a case of naturalizing what is. If schools grouped kids homogeneously and used precision teaching or Direct Instruction, you wouldn't see the less-talented kids developing depressions 5 years down the line. Even without precision teaching or Direct Instruction, you wouldn't see depression. You wouldn't see it because these kids wouldn't be struggling. They'd be taught at their level, they'd be given the time they needed, and they'd learn.

Here's Engelmann:
Rule 3: Always place students appropriately for more rapid mastery progress. This fact contradicts the belief that students are placed appropriately in a sequence if they have to struggle—scratch their head, make false starts, sigh, frown, gut it out. According to one version of this belief, if there are no signs of hard work there is no evidence of learning. This belief does not place emphasis on the program and the teacher to make learning manageable but on the grit of the student to meet the “challenge.” In the traditional interpretation, much of the “homework” assigned to students (and their families) is motivated by this belief. The assumption seems to be that students will be strengthened if they are “challenged.”

This belief is flatly wrong. If students are placed appropriately, the work is relatively easy. Students tend to learn it without as much “struggle.” They tend to retain it better and they tend to apply it better, if they learn it with fewer mistakes.

Student Program Alignment and Teaching to Mastery
by Siegfried Engelmann
July 1999

I think it's time to look into the emotional costs of heterogeneous grouping. Having lived through 3 years of my own child struggling through a class that was over his head, I can tell you that it's not good for the child. Heterogeneous grouping is no picnic for the kids on the bottom.

ability grouping & SAT score decline
ability grouping in Singapore
stagnation at the top - Fordham report
Tracking: Can It Benefit Low Achieving Children?
Linda Valli on tracking in 5 Catholic high schools, 1
Linda Valli on tracking in 5 Catholic high schools, 2
"school commitment" in Valli's study of tracking in Catholic high schools
7th grade depression starts in 1st grade


C T said...

"Heterogeneous grouping is no picnic for the kids on the bottom."

It's not so fun for the kids on the very top, either, if they get labeled as being nerds or geeks.

lori said...

Yet another reason to homeschool.

I do wonder about this claim, though:

If students are placed appropriately, the work is relatively easy. Students tend to learn it without as much “struggle.” They tend to retain it better and they tend to apply it better, if they learn it with fewer mistakes.

I agree in principle - that's part of the reason we're homeschooling. But in schools, the social stigma is a major problem. Also, in schools where tracking is in place, why do the kids in the lower tracks still tend to get lower grades? If this kind of system worked, all kids would be A students, and none of them would be labeled as the dumb ones (and none would accept and start to live "up" to that label).

So the stigma of being in a slower-moving track is still a major stumbling block when you group this way, as is the lack of upward mobility -- it seems that kids don't change tracks except to move down.

SteveH said...

I didn't quite understand until I linked through to the article. There seems to be no light bulb going off to tell them that the bigger problem is poor teaching and bad curricula. Wasn't there something about how counselors and school psychologists almost always blame the kids?

“Along with reading and math, teachers and parents should honor skills in other areas, such as interpersonal skills, non-core academic areas, athletics and music.”

You should see all of the old athletic trophies my son got just for participating. What about the psychological damage that's done when the child realizes that he/she is just not that good? As for music, kids get lots of praise at concerts and get to go on field trips. But I have no clue what they mean by honoring "interpersonal skills".

"Gee Timmy, I'm sorry you're so depressed with your bad grades, but if you perk up and try really hard, we'll give you an award for being a good friend. I'm sure colleges will overlook your stinko SAT scores."

One of the problems with this approach is that they give up. Try to be good in one thing. Self-esteem is the goal, not academics. This is just one more variation of low expectations in K-6.

Then in 7th and 8th grades, kids are hit with high expectation sink or swim. No wonder they're depressed. Six years of spiraling, partial learning with Everyday Math changes to pre-algebra and a just do it, take responsibility for your own learning approach to teaching.

On top of that, I've noticed that some teachers in middle school resort to flippant or snide remarks for class control. They use social weakness or insecurity keep kids off guard. Perhaps some teachers are trying to be funny to win over the kids, but my son has told me about instances that I thought were mean or cruel. All I can hope is that something was lost in the translation.

SteveH said...

My son has a teacher who is known for making her 7th grade social studies class hard. The idea is to toughen the kids up for high school. The assumption is that real learning is a difficult process. I feel like telling her that any teacher can make a class hard. It's more difficult, however, to make the class easy. There seems to be the idea that if you make learning easy, kids will never learn to do it on their own. You have to take an indirect, or discovery approach to really remember the material.

What if you came up with a direct, easy approach that could teach kids about fractions, percents, and decimals. Would you not use it? Thematic, real world, group discovery learning is supposed to be fun, interesting, and effective in both what you learn and how your learn. Too bad it doesn't work and wastes a lot of time. That's OK, because they want to emphasize the process and not the results. Perhaps that's why they don't like tests. Answers are not as important as the process.

lgm said...

lori said
>Also, in schools where tracking is in place, why do the kids in the lower tracks still tend to get lower grades?

The grading system docks them for poor behavior and skipping homework. Here it's 33% for each category. So..if you're behind in the academics, you can't contribute meaningfully to the class discussion, so you get an 8 of 10 for the daily behavior grade. Disruptive = 0. No h.w. = 0for the h.w. grade unless it's turned in the next day in which case it's a 50 if the work was actually done.

Also, many don't have study skills so the mid-terms and finals beat their grades down too.

As a parent or a student, it is very hard to tell what needs to be improved from the report card, which does not split the grades out into behavior, homework, and tests/quizzes.

SteveH said...

The problem with homogeneous grouping is how do you do it? Is is done on a course by course basis? Do you fix a group for a year or a semester? If a child struggles, is it because the material is over their heads, or is it because of the curriculum or teaching? How can a child test up to the next level without requiring a big jump? What do you do with a child who is not quite ready for the next level? Hold them back? I don't think you can provide many levels, but a school should be flexible, even in the early grades.

One charter school in our area groups kids homogeneously for the academic classes on a yearly basis. The non-academic classes are heterogeneous. They try to provide a full-inclusion environment, rather than full-inclusion classes. I think it has limited success, however, because they still have fuzzy, discovery-like ideas of education.

My own feeling is that you cannot place too much importance on moving along at the perfect pace. My son could handle a much higher pace in math. However, he has a lot more going on in his life than math. The problem is that many kids are not even close to being taught at the correct level, assuming that you even agree with what is being taught. I remember thinking years ago that skipping grades in MathLand was not going to solve the problem.

Jane said...


One way to handle the groupings would be to give children the end of the week exam (for reading, language arts, math, etc) on Monday. The kids who score above some benchmark (e.g. 85%) would go off to the science specialist or art specialist or history specialist or somewhere useful. The kids who score below the benchmark stay in the classroom and work on the material.

I don't know that you can measure ability in a meaningful manner. I suspect that no matter what someone's ability is, if they don't have the requesite background material, they can't access the curriculum. For example, no matter how smart someone is, they can't jump into a Japanese literature class without knowledge of written and spoken Japanese.

However, we can measure skills. If someone knows how to count to 100, they don't need to spend the next four months practicing counting to 100. If someone can read Harry Potter novels, they don't need to sit in class going through the second grade open court monstrosity.

They need to learn things they don't already know.

Maybe there aren't groupings that are effective for everyone, but the hetergenous grouping seem to be bad for most.

It has been a disaster for my children. My oldest child has learned not to pay attention in class. She reads novels all day. My middle child has learned that children of a specific ethnic group are dumb. My youngest thinks that school is where you goof off with your friends.

I have also seen how awful the heterogenous grouping is for my friend's son with a learning disability. He sits in class all day struggling. He knows he is at the bottom of the class, and so do all the other kids. He is in the same classroom as my daughter who reads at a high school level. The teacher doesn't have anywhere near the time to deal with both kids.

It is hard to see that there would a solution that is worse for the low and high kids than the current heterogenous groupings.

Catherine Johnson said...

It's not so fun for the kids on the very top, either, if they get labeled as being nerds or geeks.

Oh, absolutely.

I didn't mean to imply that it was fun for them, either.

Catherine Johnson said...

So the stigma of being in a slower-moving track is still a major stumbling block when you group this way, as is the lack of upward mobility -- it seems that kids don't change tracks except to move down.

I'd be willing to bet a large sum of money that in a high-functioning school, you wouldn't have crippling stigma.

Hogwarts has at least two levels of courses in every subject (4 in math for freshman year). I don't get the sense there's any stigma at all -- and this is what Linda Valli found, looking at Catholic high schools.

I think there are two "secrets" to avoiding stigma (that I know of):

* a positive atmosphere, with very high use of positive reinforcement & very low use of negative reinforcement & punishment

* grouping by courses & subjects, not by "tracks"

The assistant principal at Hogwarts told us that her sons, both of whom had learning problems, had attended the school & it had been a fantastic experience. She said the teachers never gave up on them and that one of the things she likes so much about the place is that it doesn't track. All students always have a chance to move up to the Honors or AP courses in the next year if they do well this year. (She wasn't working at the school when her sons attended; they didn't get special treatment.)

At their "Sports Orientation" night, the principal & the coaches had a strong, clear, and forceful philosophy they communicated to all the boys about how they should react to being cut from teams.

They told the two things.

1. Getting cut this year doesn't mean you'll get cut next year. They illustrated this point by giving us anecdotes about Hogwarts students who had been cut from the football or basketball team one year & were "stars" the next year.

2. It happens to everyone. The athletic director told parents & their kids that he had thought he would play major league baseball, "but I got cut."

What's missing from public schools is the philosophy of in loco parentis. Emotionally speaking, the kids are on their own; they must deal with their disappointments on their own.

At Hogwarts, the administrators and teachers see themselves as substitute parents, and they convey this attitude to the students.

The environment and the people are positive, and the result, I think, is that the kids start to develop the "win some/lose some" attitude they'll need as adults.

This gets me back to the issue of "school discipline," which has been bugging me lately.

Public schools, it seems, routinely fail to "keep order" ---- and this failure to keep order occurs at many levels, I think.

It's not just that in some schools the kids are running amok.

It's that in practically all schools the kids are fundamentally alone, except for their peers. The grownups teach classes & grade papers and tests, but they aren't "responsible" for the well-being of the kids.

There's a "Lord of the Flies" element in public schools.