For any child with mental health needs, school can be a challenging and frustrating place. And schools can't help if they don’t understand the extent of your child’s problem
Oftentimes the school system does not know the behavior your child exhibits at home, and as the parent it is possible that you don’t know how your child is acting in the classroom.
The solution? Build a strong partnership through open communication with the staff in your school, to give your child the tools they needs to deal with the challenges they face at school.
What can a child with mental health needs experience at school?
For a child with mental health challenges, typical situations throughout the school day can be overwhelming. For example:
- Facing testing is anxiety provoking for everyone. For a child with mental health needs it can be devastating.
- Recess and lunch are also challenging. This kind of unstructured has lots of noise, activity and over-stimulus.
- Any perceived lack of safety can be a problem for your child. Schedule changes, substitute teachers, even a school assembly can be perceived as unsafe.
If the school is aware of your child’s challenges, they will be able to help create those safe zones for your child and keep them focused on learning.
How can I build a good relationship with my child’s school?
The most important thing a parent can do is have a conversation with the school.
“As a parent, you are your child’s number one advocate,” Sonja Miller, former school principal and special education teacher explains. “You know your child better than anyone else.”
She recommends going to the school and saying “here’s what I know about my child, and what they need to succeed.” Things to share with the school include triggers that make your child frustrated, angry or scared, or keep them from doing their best work.
“Without that open communication, the school is often just shooting in the dark,” she explains.
While this process be intimidating and can make parents feel vulnerable, it really is the best way to open the door to a true partnership with your school.
Many parents “leave it to the experts,” thinking that it’s best for the school to figure out how to educate their child. But let’s look at an example. Say your child tends to withdraw when under stress, a common behavior in kids with mental health challenges. They may do their best to become invisible or fly under the radar. Without open communication around your child and changes in behavior at home, the school may not even notice there is a problem, until it escalates out of control.
By sharing the details of your child’s challenges, and what you deal with on a day-to-day basis, you lay the groundwork for working together to build an effective plan. And the earlier you communicate, the sooner your child can internalize new coping skills and ways to manage each situation.
What kind of help can the school provide?
In every public school, there is support available under the Special Education program. For kids with a mental health illness, either diagnosed or undiagnosed, this is usually where you’ll find the best support. We realize that there may be a stigma attached to Special Education, but in reality schools are limited, under current educational law, on what they can offer through the general education system.
Once your child is under the Special Education umbrella, the school team has more options. They can then create a yearly Individual Educational Plan (IEP) for your child that will cover:
- Academic needs
- Social emotional needs
- Psychological needs
- Physical needs
Services under an IEP might include:
- Accessing the school psychologist
- Modifications for testing
- Small group instruction
- One-on-one teaching
- Speech, occupational or physical therapy
- Adaptive Physical Education
How can I access help from my child’s school?
Start by requesting a meeting with your child’s teacher and perhaps the school counselor. Be open and honest about your child’s needs. Let them know about any service providers you are already using (like counseling or psychotherapy), and also any medications your child is on. Share your thoughts on how your child is doing academically, and what success looks like for them.
Then, ask how the special education system operates in your school. Each district and each school campus has their own process to manage the special education umbrella.
Finally, ask this one key question: “How do I get my child services under Special Education?” Be very clear that this is what you want. This is the best way to access the services your child needs.
We understand the hope of every parent, that their child will be successful in life. Working closely with your school is one of the best things you can do to help.
Remember, you are not alone in this. Together with your school, you can create a plan that leads to success for your child, both in school and in life. We encourage you to watch this video “Working with Your School” for more ideas.
For hope and healing,
As the director of communications for Clarity Child Guidance Center, Mike shares the insights of children’s mental health experts, both inside and outside of Clarity CGC, who work with families looking for answers about their children’s mental health.
If you are experiencing an emergency, please call 9-1-1. If you need help locating mental health resources in your area, call your local health department or the National Alliance Mental Illness's helpline at 800-950- NAMI (6264).