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Behavior Problems, Not Depression, to Blame for Poor Academic Performance

Behavioral problems have a greater negative impact on school success than depression in youth.

Sad-looking girl-- by Julia Haskins

The Gist

Depression is no friend of struggling adolescents in school, but behavior problems, including attention issues, delinquency, and substance use, are even more debilitating to academic success.

A study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that depression is not always the main culprit of students' sub-par performance. While the mental illness can contribute to difficulty in school, a host of behavior problems is more likely to hurt GPAs and lower levels of achievement. The findings show that there are multiple factors at stake in student success. 

Students who experienced the aforementioned behavior problems had lower average GPAs than their peers who only suffered from depression, and students who experienced delinquency and substance use were also more likely to receive lesser degrees than students with depression. However, students with both depression and behavior problems did not receive lower grades or levels of educational attainment than those who suffered from behavior problems alone. 

"We find that behavior problems predict GPA independent of academic ability," the study's lead author, Jane D. McLeod, said. "As important, independent of ability and of GPA, delinquency and substance use were associated with lower educational attainment. This tells us that youth who engage in problematic behaviors struggle to succeed in school even when they have the ability to do well."

The Expert Take

The researchers did not seek to downplay the effect of depression on youths, but rather to discover which factors or combination of factors had the most detrimental effect on grades and educational attainment. 

"There's a fairly sizable literature that links depression in high school to diminished academic achievement," McLeod said. "The argument we make in our study is what's really happening is that youths who are depressed also have other problems as well, and it's those other problems that are adversely affecting their achievement."

While the question remains whether depression or behavior problems come first, "more important from our perspective is recognizing that youth experience complex combinations of problems, and that these combinations matter for their academic success," McLeod said. "In particular, combinations of problems involving substance use place youth at especially high risk of academic failure."

Source and Method

Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), McLeod and her fellow researchers assessed the high school GPAs of students after the first wave of Add Health in 1994 and their level of educational attainment in 2008 to 2009. The researchers also had access to reports of the students' mental health and behavior problems. More than 20,000 American students were studied over the nearly 15-year period. 

The Takeaway

Adolescents who under-perform in school may have more going on in their lives than battling depression. Looking into whether a student suffers from attention issues, delinquency, or substance use could make a significant difference both in and out of the classroom. Furthermore, these issues are not always immediately apparent. 

"Depression and behavior problems can be difficult to distinguish in early childhood. As youth move into adolescence, their problems become more differentiated," McLeod said. 

Some solutions to the problem of youth behavior issues may be implemented within the schools themselves. "What we found is that there are adolescents who have the ability to succeed, but who are not succeeding in school because of their troubling behaviors," McLeod said. "This suggests to me that schools should reconsider the approach they take to dealing with these students. Perhaps they should think about moving away from punitive approaches towards approaches aimed at integrating these students into the school community."

Other Research

In 2006, Roy A. Bean, Brian K. Barber, and D. Russell Crane studied measures of adolescent depression, delinquency, and academic achievement in African American youth as they related to dimensions of parenting. The study was conducted using school-issued questionnaires. 

Alison L. Calear and Helen Christensen researched school-based prevention and intervention efforts for students with depression in a 2010 article for the Journal of Adolescence. The researchers evaluated the effectiveness of such programs in helping students. 

In a 2011 study published in Developmental Psychology, the authors assessed whether the backgrounds of adolescents had an effect on their developmental path. Students were evaluated based on factors including race and socioeconomic status.
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Tags: Awareness , Latest Studies & Research , Public Health & Policy

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