Parent as Advocate for Mental Health Services in the Classroom
by Lisa DiFalco
Are you a parent of a child diagnosed with a mental health disorder? You are in good company. 20 percent of children now experience mental health issues, including difficulty focusing, social challenges or anxiety. This poses a significant issue for school districts as many schools lack the resources or trained staff to adequately support the needs of children suffering from a mental health condition. Many parents take on the additional role of becoming an advocate for their child and look for ways to get them the help that they need to thrive within and outside of the classroom environment. Selena, and her children Sydney and Laney, in South Carolina, are only one family out of many that are struggling to find a solution. In the nprED story, Schools and Mental Health: When The Parent Has to Take Charge, a story unfolds of a parent and a school district doing their best to provide a supportive environment for children with mental health needs. Explore Selena’s story and understand the scope of the mental health issue in the classroom.
Selena, Sydney and Laney
Selena’s two children have been diagnosed with mental health disorders. Sydney, 15, has bipolar disorder and Laney, 8, has Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder. Both children have experienced challenges in school.
Selena, a school counselor, has found it difficult at times to help her children. Sydney often has to leave school early due to her anxiety and depression and struggle to process information. She shared that class is:
“Boring, distracting. It’s hard to pay attention. It’s overwhelming.”
The younger Laney often acts out in the classroom and at times is sent home. There are many children in need of mental health treatment, but not identified or receiving adequate treatment.
Selena has tried medication, personal education, informing teachers of the illnesses, and working with her daughter’s public schools. Even though the public schools tried to accommodate the needs of Sydney and Lacey, the children needed additional help. Sydney and Lacey then attended High Point Academy, a smaller charter school. The principal of High Point, John Hurley, notes the growing number of students with mental health diagnoses. Principals and many teachers do not have enough training in mental health to support children with specific mental health conditions. Hurley stated:
“My training in mental health was one chapter in a book that we covered in one day.”
“Because we’re left in the dark, we have to fumble around to figure out what works best. Sometimes you can be wildly successful, and sometimes you can fail miserably and you could have done the exact same thing for two different students.”
Selena worked with Erica Smith, Laney’s second-grade teacher, to develop an individualized education plan (IEP) and make accommodations such as a classroom “safe spot.” In addition, Laney had her medications adjusted. She began to perform better within the classroom and moved on to the third grade.
The same was not the case for her sister, Sydney. Even with an IEP and two periods of day working with a special education teacher, she still struggled with making friends and would shut down during class. Selena will be homeschooled this year but Selena hopes for a better solution to emerge. Selena has had to become flexible in her approach. She shared:
“You think as a parent you’re supposed to just say get up and go back to school the next day. And so you really have to sometimes stop and take stock of what’s going on and maybe change the path.”
The Importance of Support for Children and Teens with a Mental Illness
According to Mental Health Facts: Children & Teens, there are a number of startling statistics showing that children may experience negative outcomes without appropriate mental health services. Findings show that:
- An estimated 50 percent of students with a mental illness that are 14 years or older drop out of school.
- Youth with a mental illness make up 70 percent of children in state and local juvenile justice systems.
- 90 percent of children and teens that commit suicide have a mental illness.
It appears that many children with a mental illness have difficulty in the general classroom environment, may act out, or self-harm. Parents of children that have a mental illness or think that their child may have symptoms are strongly urged to:
- Speak with a pediatrician.
- Ask for a referral for a mental health specialist.
- Create social connections with families in a similar situation.
- Work in partnership with the school to develop the best possible program to meet the needs of a child with a diagnosis.
Remember that advocating for an evaluation is a necessary first step in determining the need for a specialized education program that can help meet the needs of a child with a mental illness. The recent article, “How to Advocate for Services for a Child with Autism or Developmental Disabilities,” discusses the importance of a school evaluation, the general categories that determine eligibility for special education services and what to expect of the evaluation process. As in the case with Selena and her children, an IEP does not guarantee that a child will respond as hoped to offered services.
Be Open and Persistent
Each child is a world unto themselves and parents may need significant time and multiple attempts to find the right combination of approaches to help children overcome their mental health diagnosis and progress in a classroom environment. In addition, alternative forms of schooling or placements may be of use for children that do not perform well using an IEP in a public school setting. Children, parents, teachers and health professionals needs to be open to ongoing communication and be willing to find the best possible educational solution for a child with a mental illness.