How can I help an intelligent 5th-grader who shows signs of depression?

Washington Post March 21 st 2024

Dear Meghan: How can I help or relate to a fifth-grade student who does very little work, barely talks but does show up at school. He shows up to the counseling group but says nothing. Parents work full-time, and the boy is alone after school until they come home. He seems depressed, but I’m not sure. He is intelligent.

— Worried

Worried: My first thought when I read this was Ross Greene’s words, “Children do well if they can.” I often think of this saying when it comes to all sorts of behaviors, from school problems to disobedience. The idea that children do well if they can means, if the conditions are right, every child will reach their fullest potential, whatever that may be. It doesn’t mean that there is perfection, but it does mean that the child has a chance at growing.

When it comes to this young man, I know precious little of what is going on in his life. If you are his parent, you have many options available to you, from outside supports for after-school activities or therapy to other school resources. If you are a teacher, your domain is truly just in the school, but please work in tandem with the family, the fellow teachers and administrator, and the school counselor to find the most effective solutions.

The best news is that he is still showing up; something in him has not given up! He could fight going to school, we know that chronic absenteeism is at an all-time high. He could absolutely refuse the counseling group, but again, he is there. His intelligence is also interesting. Giftedness in children often doesn’t show up the way you may guess. They aren’t all straight A’s and precocious stereotypes depicted on TV; the depression and lack of work could actually be a symptom of his gifted needs not being met (children do well if they can), or he could even be depressed and gifted. In either case, it could be a useful lens by which to see this young man.Share this articleShare

So often the child is seen as a collection of problems to be fixed (Love school! Do your work! Be happy!), but no one slows down to simply ask the child what is going on with them. Your theories don’t matter that much until you understand his life from his perspective. The Greene Collaborative and Proactive Solutions model is especially helpful as it gives you a script to follow and a worksheet to fill out. It keeps the adults from getting lost in the weeds as well as holds the child to real expectations. It takes some practice and may feel unwieldy at first, but with time and dedication, it is amazing to watch children begin to trust that adults want to truly know and support them. Starting with problem-solving, the smallest of goals (turning in one math sheet) can yield rewards that go across all sorts of domains, as long as the child is involved in the problem-solving.Skip to end of carousel

Meghan Leahy is a parenting coach and the author of “Parenting Outside the Lines.” She has given advice about toddler tantrums, teens and mental health and co-parenting.Ask her a question here.End of carousel

It is also useful to look at the basics every student needs to be successful and see what’s missing for this fifth-grader. First and foremost is safety: emotional, physical and psychological, both inside and outside of school. I cannot express how important it is that a child has a compassionate adult in their life, preferably both in school and at home, but I will take even one! And, yes, it is perfectly fine that his parents work full time, but it may help him to have contact with a mentor after school. Notice I didn’t say “more work” or “even more activities.” Some children benefit from after-school hobbies; some don’t. Some children need more guided activities; some don’t. Working with this young man and his family to find a solution that works for everyone is the best place to begin.

Depression is complicated, but it should still be addressed no matter if you are the parent or the teacher. If you are the teacher, please meet with the counselor to express your concerns with the details of the behaviors you’ve witnessed, when they started, and how long the behaviors have been happening. It is common in our culture to notice the loud, problematic behaviors first, but lack of school work, silence and being checked out are also red flags.

If you are the parents, the first place to look is the basics: sleep, exercise and nutrition. Many well-meaning adults create complex academic plans for kids only to realize that the child simply needs more protein, or they are getting only four hours of sleep at night. Can you force a fifth-grader to eat or sleep? No, but it is where the attention should go first! It is hard to help a child find their motivation when their primary human needs may not be getting met.

This boy is at an important age where the proper interventions can change the trajectory of his life. Don’t give up. Believing in him, staying involved, and caring about him, you could fill his bucket in ways that you don’t see right now. We are all eager for quick solutions, but sticking by him may yield good things when you are least expecting it. Good luck.