At least 1 in 5 school-aged children is affected by a mental health condition. The two most common conditions among children and adolescents are anxiety followed by depression, but children can have other difficulties that affect their ability to fully take part in and benefit from their classroom experiences. These include attention deficit-hyperactivity, autism spectrum disorder and eating disorders.
Many children can also suffer from emotional reactions to the strain of learning issues, medical illness, family financial struggles, personal problems or other stressors. While not all mental health problems directly affect students’ academic or school functioning, many do, and schools can help.
If your child’s mental health condition is affecting their functioning at school, your first step should be to identify their condition with either a mental health professional or pediatrician and present this diagnostic information to the school.
With younger children (grades K-5), it may make sense to start with your child’s classroom teacher, while with middle or high school students, it’s usually best to start with the school’s health and wellness specialist. Virtually all public and private schools have at least one person who handles student mental health concerns—generally a guidance counselor, social worker, nurse or psychologist. And keep in mind that by law, schools are required to offer some level of accommodation to students with mental health needs; the nature and extent of that support will depend on your child’s particular condition and the resources at the school’s disposal. Your child’s school may have more resources than you might imagine, depending, of course, on your child’s age, condition and particular school setting.
Your next step will be to call a meeting with that designated specialist—or, if the issues have risen to a significant level, with a broader team that includes teachers and other school personnel.
Most parents get nervous meeting with school officials when their child is having behavioral or emotional problems. To support your best state of mind, consider having your child’s other parent or another close relative accompany you to the meeting. If your child is working with a mental health professional, see whether it’s possible to invite this person to the meeting as well. It can be extremely helpful to have an objective observer/expert/advocate with you!
Your partnership with the school is a key ingredient in ensuring that your child receives the support he or she needs. So, here are some tips for forging an effective alliance:
- Be honest, direct and specific. Most school personnel will respond with compassion and eagerness to help if they understand what is happening with your child and feel you are leveling with them. If you are vague, or appear to be holding back information, it will be harder for them to understand, and they may be less sympathetic.
- Ask questions about what teachers are seeing at school. Don’t assume they’re seeing what you see at home. Some children hold it together all day and then melt down as soon as they get home. Conversely, some children seem fine at home but can be disruptive, distracted or unhappy in classroom environments. Ask your child’s teachers about how your child presents at school. Don’t assume you know the whole story any more than you would assume they know the whole story.
- If you’re not sure where the best resources are within your child’s school, request to attend a staff meeting. Talking in-person with the group of players who can support your child is often more effective than sending long, detailed email messages or chatting over the phone with a single faculty or staff member.
- Know the law regarding special education support. If your child’s teachers, counselor and other staff are not able to accommodate your child in a supportive way (or if you want to make sure the school system will continue to do so from year-to-year), request an evaluation to see whether your child qualifies for special education services. Under the Americans with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, mental illness is grounds for “special education” needs in public schools systems provided they interfere with your child’s ability to make expected academic progress. Even students whose mental health needs do not meet the criteria for IDEA may be entitled to more modest accommodations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
There are few parenting experiences more difficult than seeing your child in emotional distress. It can be hard to think straight, and hard to believe that other adults will understand, care enough or know what to do. But your child’s teacher, guidance counselor or principal has likely encountered other students with similar issues and most educators would be naturally inclined to accommodate, include and support your child. And it’s their job to do so. Your job is to enlist their help.
Deborah Offner is a clinical psychologist, school consultant, and former dean of students at a Boston, Massachusetts high school. In her adolescent psychology practice in Newton, Massachusetts, she works directly with students and their parents. She also consults to school and college counselors as well as faculty, school leadership, and parent groups about student wellness and emotional health. Learn more about Dr. Offner at www.deborahoffnerphd.com.