Without a doubt, schools and their staff play a huge role in children’s lives. Often the adults in a child’s school life spend more time each day with our children than we do. Because one out of five children will experience mental illness, it is critical that parents and caregivers understand how a school can influence children’s mental health and, if necessary, provide support services for children experiencing mental illness.
In our previous blog post, we discussed the role of teachers and school counselors with regard to mental health and some ways to solicit support in a way that is appropriate and helpful. In this post, we dig a little deeper to share special education and planning programs that schools and their parent districts provide to students.
Special Education Curricula and Programs
There are myriad of programs and approaches within school systems through which children experiencing mental illness can receive support. Generally that support is provided through special education programs and academic accommodations. The Association for Children’s Mental Health outlines common accommodations from which students experiencing mental illness may benefit.
- “A child with hyperactivity may benefit from working some activity into their daily classroom routine.
- A child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder might benefit from their teachers being trained to interact with them in a certain way.
- A young person who struggles with disorganization might be helped by being taught planning skills.
- Children who may become aggressive and those who get overly anxious may benefit from exploring what things lead up to those feelings and being taught strategies to recognize when it is happening and things to do to prevent the problem from escalating.”
- In addition, adjustments to the homework load or extra time to finish tests or tasks can be beneficial.
For high school students, alternative schools may be an option as they might offer longer or shorter classes, more flexibility, and additional time for tests.
In Texas, while schools are required to offer special education services to children as a part of their general programs, accessing those services is a precise and somewhat complicated process. Navigate Life Texas, a resource for children with special education needs and their families, explains, “The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) any time a student is identified as having a disability and needs special education services. This is partially based on your child’s special education evaluation.” A diagnosed mental illness is considered a disability. Parents need to help demonstrate they ways in which a mental illness is affecting the child’s learning as part of accessing special education programs. If it is determined that the illness is impacting the child’s performance at school, the school must participate actively in creating an environment that helps the child overcome the hurdles caused by the illness.
The process begins with a parent, guardian or school personnel requesting a full and individual evaluation of the student’s needs, and proceed through eight more steps as described by Texas Project FIRST, an initiative of the Texas Education Agency to provide accurate information to parents. Key points in the process include parental consent, the evaluation, IEP planning, and determining ongoing evaluative measures. The Texas Project FIRST website contains a wealth of information parents and caregivers will find valuable throughout the process, starting with this page in particular.
In the San Antonio area, the Brighton Center can be an invaluable partner to parents navigating the processes related to accessing special education and appropriate support services. The center offers parent education classes on how to best advocate for your child and Special Education 101. Perhaps more significantly, though, the Brighton Center provides individualized ARD support that provides assistance to caregivers of children with disabilities or developmental delays through the entire ARD process. These individualized support services are fully comprehensive, including the initial meeting with a Brighton Center Advocate all the way to Due Process, if necessary.
A child experiencing a mental illness has the same right to public educational opportunities as other children. We encourage you to review information available through the resources we’ve shared as well as this video, communicate openly and cooperatively with your child’s teacher and school administrators, and advocate for the support your child needs.
With an eye to the best for our kids,
Michele Autenrieth Brown is the director of development for Clarity Child Guidance Center. She became passionate mental health advocate after trying to navigate the system of care to support a family member. When she is not shuttling kids to practices or spending time with her husband, Michele is perfecting just what to say to get the perfect eye roll and sigh from her teen and pre-teen children.
If you are experiencing an emergency, please call 9-1-1. If you need help locating mental health resources in your area, visit the Bexar County Community Resource website, call your local health department or the National Alliance Mental Illness's helpline at 1-800-950- NAMI (6264).