Secret protection from teen depression

Helping kids succeed in first grade may have a lasting mental-health benefit: Lower risk for depression in seventh grade and beyond. That’s the conclusion University of Missouri researchers arrived at after tracking 474 boys and girls from grammar school to middle school.

It makes sense - and it’s just one more reason to help your learners do their best. “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 researcher 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.”

The scientists quickly point out that not every child is an academic whiz kid - and it’s important for parents to recognize and let kids know they value all types of intelligence. “Children’s individual differences will always exist in basic academic skills, so it is necessary to explore and emphasize other assets in students, especially those with lower academic skill relative to their peers,” Herman said. “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.”

But this study, published in 2009, adds a little extra urgency to the job of helping kids get off to a great start in math and reading. And a handful of recent studies point parents toward ways to help with numbers:

Work the number line with them. In another University of Missouri study, first-graders who knew where numbers belonged on a number line (for example, being able to show you where the number 5 belongs on a number line from 1 to 10) were stronger math students throughout elementary school.

Relate numbers and objects. Another important skill that math-savvy first-graders had, in the same study, was the ability to translate an abstract number into a real-world example - like being able to count out the right number of marbles if you ask for five of them.

Make big problems smaller. A third skill: Breaking more complicated math problems into smaller, easier ones. This can be as simple as making sure your child understands how many “2” and “3” are before adding these together in the problem 2 + 3.

Get past your own math anxiety. Scared of numbers? Get over it. University of Chicago researchers have found that when female elementary-school teachers felt math anxiety, girls in their classes felt it too - and ultimately scored six points lower in math achievement tests. (The researchers looked at women teachers because 90 percent  of elementary school teachers are female.) It was a small study of just 17 teachers and 117 kids, but it’s one of many studies finding that math anxiety in adults - including parents - rubs off on kids. Your best move: Don’t let on that math makes you nervous - it’ll rub off. Stay calm and positive if you’re working on math with your child, call in a number-savvy friend or tutor to help - or even work ahead in your child’s math book.