Depression and Learning in Early Childhood


This paper explores how children learn and how mental health affects their learning. It outlines Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years, focusing on the four foundations of learning: well-being, expression, engagement, and belonging. It examines the major characteristics of depression and how that threaten the child’s optimal development. It discusses the relationship between somatic symptoms and the child’s self-regulation; social withdrawal and the child’s exploration with movement, words, and materials; anhedonia (loss of pleasure) and the child’s curiosity; and dysphoria (state of prolonged sadness) and the child’s view of the world. In doing so, it looks into research done by scholars, clinicians, and psychologists. It also considers strategies that caregivers and educators can practice to support the learning of a child with depression. 

How Do Children Learn? How Does Depression Affect Their Learning?

According to Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years (OPEY, 2014), there are “four foundational conditions that are important for children to grow and flourish: well-being, expression, engagement, and belonging” (p. 7). Unfortunately, “Ontario’s Policy Framework for Child and Youth Mental Health reports that 15 to 21 percent of children and youth in Ontario have at least one mental health disorder” (OPEY, 2014, p. 30) that shakes the four foundations for learning in early childhood. Depression is one of these debilitating disorders. This paper focuses on the characteristics of depression that affect a child’s development. It investigates the impact of these symptoms on the early years of a child spanning from birth to six years old and it refers to the collective child using the pronoun “she”. It does not discuss the causes and treatments available for depression, but it touches on what caregivers and educators could do to help in the child’s learning. To do so, it is imperative to understand what depression is and how it manifests: it is a “pervasive unhappy mood” (Mash & Wolfe, 2016, p. 312) characterized by dysphoria (state of prolonged sadness), anhedonia (loss of pleasure and interest), somatic symptoms (physical dysfunctions), and social withdrawal. Each symptom alone does not point towards the existence of depression as a disorder, but if present together and persist over time, it presents a cause for concern. Why? Depression in early childhood inhibits the holistic development of the child as she experiences poor well-being, reduced interest in communicating with others, decreased engagement, and a skewed perception of not belonging.

Impacts of Depression in Early Learning

The four foundations for learning support children’s optimal development. First, children’s holistic development depends on their physical and mental well-being that incorporates their self-concept, self-confidence, and self-identity. Second, their abilities to express themselves through explorations, movement, words, and use of materials allow them to communicate and create neural pathways that enhance their learning. Third, their natural curiosity opens a lot of doors for them to engage in play, inquiry, creative thinking, and innovation. Finally, their communication and involvement brings them a sense of belonging that boosts their “confidence to play, explore, and learn about the world around them” (OPEY, 2014, p. 24). Mood disorders such as depression destabilize these four conditions, affecting the child’s perspective in life and, thus, her learning and development.

Poor Well-being

According to Mash and Wolfe (2016), “[a child] who [is] depressed cannot seem to shake [her] sadness” (p. 312), which is a significant factor in early childhood learning because “the emotional systems development occurring in infancy is particularly influential in shaping later outcomes” (Gartstein & Bateman, 2008, p. 226). As the child deals with immeasurable emotional suffering, she struggles with the ability to self-regulate, especially in “[dealing] effectively with stressors” (OPEY, 2014, p. 30). She becomes less active and feels somatic symptoms such as extreme fatigue, aches and pains, under-eating or over-eating, and sleeping too little or too much (Gartstein & Bateman, 2008, pp. 223-224; Luby, 2009, pp. 974-975; Mash & Wolfe, 2016, p. 313). These symptoms hinder the child from actively participating in play-based learning that contributes to her physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development. She does not develop fine and gross motor skills as well as other children who are not experiencing depression. She also faces difficulties in grasping basic concepts and ideas, as well as problems in dealing with challenges and communicating with others.

Reduced Interest in Communicating with Others

In addition to her inability to be physically involved in activities, the child with depression withdraws from social interactions. She may be passive and unresponsive, or “[negative] and self-destructive verbalizations may occur” (Mash & Wolfe, 2016, p. 314). This characterization may be attributed to difficult temperament that “predicts an increasing trajectory of internalizing problems” (Côté et al., 2009, p. 1205). This means that instead of expressing herself, the child keeps everything to herself, losing on opportunities to develop and “enhance [her] language skills, social conversational skills, and cognitive activity” (OPEY, 2014, p. 41). The child’s inhibitions also prevent her from establishing stronger connections with her learning as she participates less in conversation and expressive activities that help in uncovering deeper meanings.

Decreased Engagement

Consequently, depression affects the child’s involvement and focus in play activities. Lous, De Wit, De Bruyn, Riksen-Walraven, and Rost (2000) claim that “[depressed] children showed less coherence of play, switching behaviors more often than nondepressed children” (p. 255). Appendix A illustrates this difference between the average number of times that the children in the study converted from manipulative and symbolic play to looking around and asking the experimenter questions unrelated to the current activity. Mash and Wolfe (2016) support this discovery, explaining that “[a child with depression] generally lack the exuberance, bounce, and enthusiasm in [her] play that characterize most preschoolers” (p. 314). She experiences anhedonia, finding little joy in any activity and losing interest easily. Thus, she becomes disengaged in learning and initiating experiences that support holistic development.

Skewed Perception of Not Belonging

Without the curiosity to engage in play, “[a child] with depression [experiences] biases, deficits and distortions in [her] thinking” (Mash & Wolfe, 2016, p. 324). She feels alone and believes that others do not like her, further intensifying dysphoric experiences and reinforcing misguided self-perceptions. As if stuck in a cycle, the child withdraws from social interactions more or “may be quite negative toward [others], and [others] in turn may respond in a negative, dismissing, or harsh manner” (Mash & Wolfe, 2016, p. 327). She sees herself as an unwanted outsider and her insecurity impedes her receptivity to environmental stimuli that foster development. She misses out on opportunities to explore and discover what the world has to offer.

Conclusion: Field Application

The first few years of childhood are crucial in the child’s development and learning. When her experiences are adversely affected by depression, she loses out on chances to optimize her growth as she deals with poor well-being, reduced interest in communicating with others, decreased engagement, and a skewed perception of not belonging. Sadly, “parents often attribute the negative moods [of the child] to temporary factors and expect the moods to pass” (Mass & Wolfe, 2016, p. 312), dismissing the idea that the child may be dealing with a mood disorder. Although children are much more resilient than adults, it is crucial that caregivers and educators recognize signs of dysphoria, anhedonia, somatic symptoms, and social withdrawal. To ameliorate the effects of these symptoms, the caregiver or educator should encourage the child to participate in play-based activities while helping her regulate her emotions. In addition to seeking professional help, he could also offer emotional support by recognizing the child’s feelings and inviting her to express herself via art experiences that trigger her curiosity. This leads to the child’s further investigation and exploration, allowing her to be more engaged in learning. Moreover, creating an early learning environment that fosters positive relationships could help the child feel more connected. The caregiver or educator could create a welcoming atmosphere where the child feels secure and comfortable, building on her self-confidence and positive self-concept. In conclusion, recognizing the signs for depression and using the foundations for learning as a guide, caregivers and educators can support the child’s optimal learning effectively.


Appendix A. Behaviour Changes by Play Situation. Adapted from “Depression and Play in Early Childhood” by A. Lous, C. De Wit, E. De Bruyn, J. Riksen-Walraven, and H. Rost, 2000, Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders.


Côté, S. M., Boivin, M., Liu, X., Nagin, D. S., Zoccolillo, M., & Tremblay, R. E. (2009). Depression and anxiety symptoms: onset, developmental course and risk factors during early childhood. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50(10), 1201-1208. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2009.02099.x

Gartstein, M. A., & Bateman, A. E. (2008). Early manifestations of childhood depression: influences of infant temperament and parental depressive symptoms. Infant & Child Development, 17(3), 223-248. doi:10.1002/icd.549

Lous, A. M., De Wit, C. A. M., De Bruyn, E. E. J., Riksen-Walraven, J. M., & Rost, H. (2000). Depression and play in early childhood: play behavior of depressed and nondepressed 3- to 6-year-olds in various play situations. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 8(4), 249-260. Retrieved from

Luby, J. L., M.D. (2009). Early childhood depression. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 166(9), 974-979. Retrieved from

Mash, E. J., & Wolfe, D. A. (2016). Depressive and Bipolar Disorders. In Abnormal Child Psychology (pp. 310-347). Boston, USA: Cengage Learning.

Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years. (2014). How does learning happen?: A resource about learning through relationships for those who work with young children and their families. Ontario: Ontario Public Service.

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