Shyness in School May Be a Sign of Depression

Why Teachers May Not Recognize Depressive Symptoms in Students


Just like there are a variety of personalities in any adult's workplace, finding a shy child in school isn't that hard to do. Many times, shyness is just shyness and is not cause for concern, particularly if the child's teacher reports good behavior in class. But, there are cases where shyness could be a sign of something more.

What we think may be simple shyness may actually be an internalizing behavior that might be a sign of depression.

In children for whom this is true, it has been well documented that shyness and like behaviors, such as social withdrawal, are actually overshadowed by externalizing behaviors that are disruptive or aggressive -- especially in schools. That is, what's going on inside is masked by what we can actually witness. Though a shy, depression child may not act out in this way, the combination may be a sign that there is reason for concern.

How Often is Shyness a Sign of Depression?

That is hard to say. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, approximately 3% of children have a depressive disorder. While not all depressed children have internalizing behaviors, the majority show some signs of social or academic withdrawal. Additionally, girls are reported to have more internalizing behaviors than boys.

Dr. Leslie D. Leve and colleagues, who published a study of the topic in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 2005, identified four factors that may contribute to a child's internalizing behaviors.

They found that children who had depressed mothers, were exposed to harsh discipline and/or parental fighting, and who had a more shy and fearful temperament were more likely to display internalizing behaviors than those who did not.

Of course, these findings do not suggest that these situations apply to all children with depression and/or internalizing behaviors.

Wouldn't My Child's Teach Figure Out if There Was a Problem?

In a busy classroom, children who are quiet are often considered well-behaved as compared to their noisy and disruptive classmates. Whether a child is actually quiet because she's well-behaved or because she's too shy or fearful to speak is something that likely escapes the capacity of what a busy teacher can investigate.

Dr. Leve's study showed that teachers reported higher rates of disruptive or externalizing behaviors in the classroom than parents reported of their own children -- so yes, a teacher may indeed ID a problem, particularly since it's clear how disruptive externalizing behaviors can be to a classroom. Children with disruptive behaviors are more likely to require discipline and thus be referred to a school counselor or psychologist, or for outside treatment. That said, there is no guarantee.

Again, though poor behavior is a particular cause for concern in a shy child, not every shy child who is depressed will act out in this way.

Furthermore, shyness is not always a sign of depression. Parents should be aware of this, including the limitations of the classroom, and consult their child's doctor and/or school faculty beyond classroom teachers for insight into their child's behavior.

Unexplained Physical Complaints May Be an Important Warning Sign

A child might have few obvious signs of depression. However, unexplained physical symptoms -- such as headache, bellyache, nausea, generalized pain, problems with sleep, appetite changes, and weight changes -- are common complaints among depressed children who have internalizing behaviors. When a physician cannot identify a medical cause for these complaints, he may determine that they reflect a child's anxiety or depression..

According to Robin Adair Shannon and colleagues, who published a study in the Journal of School Nursing in 2010, children with unexplained physical symptoms tend to frequent the school nurse's office and account for a significant amount of the school's heath resources. In fact, school nurses may have a unique perspective into a depressed child, whereas classroom teachers may not be aware.

What to Do

It's important to remember that shyness is not a telltale sign of depression -- or that anything at all is wrong with your child, for that matter. Shyness is a personality trait. Depression, on the other hand, tends to be episodic -- a state that a child finds herself in.

Additional signs of depression in children might be feeling misunderstood or guilty; showing a significant academic decline; losing interest in things of former interest; unexplained crying; clinging to a parent; and difficulty concentrating or making decisions.

Even if your child does not receive negative behavior reports, discuss your child's classroom behavior with his teacher. Reports that your child is extremely shy, does not speak in class, or frequents the nurses office may be warning signs that should be further investigated. And if it seems that depression is not affecting your child, and that she is simply just plain shy, it is worth having a conversation about ways to comfortably engage your child in the learning process more.

It is important to speak to your child’s pediatrician any time you notice signs of depression. Identifying and treating depression is important, especially for children.


John V. Campo, MD, Jeff Bridge, PhD, Mary Ehmann, BA, et al. "Recurrent Abdominal Pain, Anxiety, and Depression in Primary Care." PEDIATRICS April 4, 2004 13(4):817-824.

Leslie D. Leve, Hyoun K. Kim, and Katherine, C. "Childhood Temperament and Family Environment as Predictors of Internalizing and Externalizing Trajectories from Age 5 to 17." Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology October 2005 33(5): 505-520.

Robin Adair Shannon, Martha Dewey Bergren, and Alicia Matthews. "Frequent Visitors: Somatization in School-Age Children and Implications for School Nurses." The Journal of School Nursing June 2010 26(3): 169-182.

S.B. Williams, E.A. O'Connor, Eder, M. Whitlock, E.P. "Screening for Child and Adolescent Depression in Primary Care Settings: A Systematic Evidence Review for the US Preventive Services Task Force." Pediatrics April 4 2009 123(4):e716-e735.

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