A Pediatrician Wonders About the Influence of an Unhappy Teacher

William G. Wilkoff, MD


July 06, 2021

Dr William Wilkoff

You are seeing a third-grader who has been experiencing some difficulty in school and his parents are wondering if he might have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In addition to interviewing his parents and doing a complete physical exam, you solicit information from his teacher, whose report confirms his struggles and also raises the possibility of an attention-deficit disorder. While the child has never been a model student, his parents have not voiced concerns at any of his previous health maintenance visits.

The child's mother mentions that she has heard from another mother whose son and several other boys in the class have been struggling and misbehaving. Math seems to have been a particular problem. You don't recall seeing any other third-graders whose parents have reported recent-onset school problems. But you practice in a large community with several grade schools spread out over a large county and may not be aware of a cluster.

As you get to know this child and his family better, you decide this doesn't feel like a textbook case of ADHD, if indeed there is such a thing. You wonder if something is going on at school but you haven't elicited any history that suggests bullying.

The parents have not expressed any concerns about the teacher, but you are beginning to wonder whether it's time to consider the teacher's role in this scenario. You recall reading about an article recently published in the journal Child Development that describes a study of more than 1,500 Head Start students in which the researchers found that teachers' self-reported depressive symptoms were directly associated with lower math skills acquisition over the academic year.

There has been little published previously on an association between depressive symptoms in a teacher and academic achievement; however, the most quoted article I could find is from 2015 in which researchers studied 523 third-graders and 17 teachers at eight Florida school districts. The investigators found that in classes taught by teachers at increased risk for depression there was a decrease in the "quality of the learning environment" as determined by trained observers who watched classroom videos. It is interesting that a new math curriculum had been introduced during the academic year in which these observations were made.

Teaching can be a tough job and I guess we shouldn't be surprised that the Rand Corporation has reported that teachers are nearly twice as likely to experience job stress and almost three times as likely to experience depression than is the general adult population.

Even if you have a strong suspicion that a depressed teacher is contributing to your patient's academic struggles and maybe those of his classmates, what are your options? You don't have enough information, nor would privacy concerns allow you to speak to the school administration. Your best approach would probably be to share with the child's parents your concern that "something" in the school environment maybe contributing to the changes they are seeing, being careful to avoid singling out the teacher as the culprit because you really have nothing more than a suspicion. If the situation worsens and more parents share their stories, some of them may be bold enough to speak to the school administration.

I have always thought that here is a role for the principal. He or she may be aware of the teacher's fragility and may be taking steps to correct the problem – but at a minimum, a visit to the classroom to get a sense for the "quality of the learning environment" would be in order.

Unfortunately, because mental health diagnoses continue to carry a stigma, it is very unlikely that a situation like this will resolve quickly to the benefit of the teacher or your patient and his classmates.

Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including "How to Say No to Your Toddler." Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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