A Teacher’s State of Mind Key to Managing Children’s Behavior

While most training for teachers focuses on managing behavioral problems in children, Lieny Jeon thinks that a teacher’s state of mind is key to understanding students’ social and emotional development.

Jeon, who joined the School of Education in July as an assistant professor, has devoted her career to finding creative ways to contribute to educators’ professional development and social and emotional well-being. “They don’t have the time or resources to address their own psychological difficulties or access any specialized mental health services,” she said.

During Jeon’s doctoral and postdoctoral work at Ohio State University, she examined how teachers’ mental health affects the behavior of preschoolers above and beyond children’s family background, including parental depression. “Early-childhood teachers can play an important role in the life of young children. They spend considerable time with their students, second only to parents, and one teacher can affect a large number of students,” she said.

Jeon (pronounced Gee-on) and colleagues assessed data from a nationally representative study of single-parent families that reported using child care services for three-year-old children for at least five hours a week in 15 U.S. cities.

“We were interested in this sample group because we thought that children from low-income families might experience a more emotionally vulnerable home environment, and we wanted to see if the role of the teacher affected their psychological health,” she said.

The team also examined information from teachers who were asked to complete the short version of the Johns Hopkins Symptom Checklist that measured six items rating their depressed mood during a two-week period.

Published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, the analysis found a direct relationship between the mental health of the teacher and behavior problems. Children with teachers reporting depressed moods were more likely to exhibit inattentiveness, aggressiveness, anxiety, sadness and withdrawal.

Jeon said depressed teachers may create an unhealthy classroom climate. “Previous studies have found that depressed teachers spend less time engaging with children and are less sensitive to their interactions with students. These students may also be modeling the behavior of their teachers, emulating their downcast moods, their negative thought patterns or their ineffective way of approaching problems.”

She joined the School of Education after spending seven years at Ohio State University, where she received her master’s degree and Ph.D. Jeon, who was raised in Seoul, South Korea, and earned her bachelor’s degree at Sookmyung Women’s University.

“Teaching can be an emotionally stressful occupation and yet there is comparatively little investment in protecting teacher psychological well-being,” said Jeon. “We have been so concerned about child outcomes that we have neglected to attend to the psychological needs of the teachers. But the two are inextricable linked.”

Jeon estimates that as many as 10 percent of preschool teachers and caregivers are depressed. “Teachers need our support, and parents and administrators together can make sure they get it.”

At the School of Education, Jeon is working on an extension of this study of the effects of teacher mental health on student learning. The project will involve five early-childhood sites in Baltimore, including the Weinberg Early Childhood Center and 10 in Ohio. The study will look at the effects of teacher’s social and emotional capacity on a child’s social-emotional learning and how other factors, such as program support, professional development opportunities, relationships with co-workers and families, contribute to improving teacher functioning. Her goal is to develop an online professional development program that supports early childhood teachers’ emotional difficulties.