- A new study of 198 2- and 3-year-old Canadian students, who were primarily white and middle-class, finds preschool children who both bully and are themselves bullied are most likely to show signs of childhood depression, which can appear as early as age 3 and increases the risk of depression in later childhood and adolescence, according to the Hechinger Report.
- The study, published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, examined both physical aggression and emotional bullying tactics, such as withholding friendship, finding that while girls are no more likely than boys to show signs of depression at this age, they are more likely to engage in emotional bullying — likely because of stronger language skills.
- While the students in this study all attended high-quality, publicly funded preschools in Canada, students at lower-quality preschools who receive less support from teachers may be more prone to bullying and being bullied and at higher risk of depression, The Hechinger Report noted.
According to research published in 2013 by Psychology Today, depression affects approximately 4% of preschoolers in the United States. That number is increasing each year as physicians and therapists become better equipped at identifying the symptoms of preschool depression, which include self-hatred or speaking negatively about oneself, using negative themes in play, and disturbances in sleep, appetite or activity patterns.
A family history of depression also increases the odds. But while family issues and dynamics may exacerbate the problem, teachers should be careful about assuming that home issues are the sole cause, especially as this assumption may make parents less likely to seek help for their child — an action that can have long-term consequences.
While preschool depression has little direct effect on K-12 education, children who suffer depression in preschool are more likely to experience it later in childhood when it can affect school relationships, behavior and academic growth in larger ways. Even at the preschool level, depression can affect student-teacher and peer relationships and set up a path of bullying behavior that can follow a student down the road.
The impact of bullying behavior on preschool behavior indicates the need for social-emotional learning skills even at the preschool level, though this may require more training for pre-K teachers. Learning skills such as empathy can help children see how bullying behaviors hurt their peers.
Students also need to learn early how to properly respond to bullying behavior. While much of this knowledge is gained with maturity, early instruction about these issues will hopefully reduce bullying later, help build resilience, and help fix some of the issues affecting school climate before they become a bigger problem.