Children’s Mental Health and School Accommodations
As Ms. Hancock scans the classroom, she watches her students involved in their studies; eagerly jotting down notes and filling the classroom with a steady chatter of conversation. To her initial delight, it appears the students are comprehending the material and everything is going well and is in its proper place. That is until she sees someone hiding in the corner. His scuffed up red sneakers trimmed in white stitching poked out just a bit from behind a dated reading chair and crowded bookcase.
Ms. Hancock takes this opportunity to approach so she can check in and to see if she could help. She asks, “Cullen, are you alright?” When there is no response, she moves in a bit closer and speaks with a bit more empathy. “Cullen… Cullen, is there anything I can do for you?”
She watches him as he lifts his head and peeks ever so cautiously at her, with eyes bloodshot, swollen and overflowing in pain. Then, as if his mind cannot contain his hurt any longer, his shoulders begin to convulse and the sound of hefty breathing emerges. Tears trickle down his cheeks and off the tip of his chin. His sobbing spoke volumes for the words that he doesn’t say. The words that he doesn’t know how to speak due to his age and experience.
For a moment, she says nothing and sits in the silence, allowing him the opportunity to express himself if he so desires. To comfort him, she places her hand on his upper back. Though instead of peace, she causes him more distress and he moans, “I hate you. I hate my life!” Without so much as a pause, he gets up and begins to tread heavily towards the classroom door. She tries one more time to engage him, though he is out of earshot and doesn’t heed her plea to return.
Many Children Struggle with Mental Illness
For those of you with children, or who know a child well, you may see signs of mental health concerns. These are the children who are riddled with pain, guilt, or anguish, or maybe they have thoughts of depression, face extreme anxiety or experience serious PTSD due to past trauma. If you can relate, you are not alone. In the United States, 17.1 million children are dealing with effects of mental health issues. When you break that down, that means that 22 out of every 100 children are facing the struggles of a psychiatric disorder on some level.
Mental Illness Affects Academic Performance
So what does that mean for them academically? The difficult answer is that we don’t always know. Some students are able to manage their symptoms and stay on course in the classroom with minimal or no issues. For other students though, the push and pull of a mental illness will distract them from their studies and possibly create behavioral issues or academic decline. Regardless of which way a student displays and manages mental illness, it is critical that you have conversations with the school early and often.
Discuss Options with the School
So where do we even start? You can discuss with the school the possibility of putting and Individual Education Plan (IEP) OR a 504 Plan in place. Both of these documents are legal documents that require teachers and other school personal to execute. The information contained in these plans include classroom modification and/or accommodations that are tailored specifically to your child so that they can have the necessary support in place to find success in school. Although both plans assist students in the classroom, each plan serves a slightly different function and applies to a different population of students.
Individual Education Plan (IEP)
The IEP came about back in 1975 as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Act or IDEA. For students who qualify for special education services, these children will have a standardized document in place. Information contained within this document include strengths, struggles, current testing, and accommodation or modifications to assist the student in achieving their personal best. For a student to qualify though, assessments must determine that they qualify in at least one of the following categories.
- Emotional Disturbance
- Hearing Impairment
- Intellectual Disability
- Multiple Disabilities
- Orthopedic Impairment
- Other Health Impaired
- Specific Learning Disability
- Speech or Language Impairment
- Traumatic Brain Injury
- Visual Impairment
Of these 13 verifications, the two categories that are most prominent for students facing mental illness include Emotional Disturbance and Other Health Impairment, which often includes Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity disorder. AD/HD is widely known though Emotional Disturbance may not be familiar to you. Emotional disturbance is a common verification for students with Conduct Disorder, Disruptive Mood Depressive Disorder or other similar diagnosis that manifest in verbal or physical aggression in an individual. This is by no means a comprehensive list, rather designed to give you an idea of if your child may qualify for an IEP.
An IEP may list any number of modifications in the classroom such as shortened assignments, simplified material, alternate lesson plans, or altering the grading scale used on projects or exams. The specific modifications available to a student are determined by the multi-disciplinary team teachers, administrators, parents, and possibly the student if age appropriate.
If you find that your child struggles in school and is not able to get the services from an IEP, a 504 Plan may be a great option to consider. A 504 Plan came about in 1973 as a result of the Rehabilitation Act. It is meant to protect the rights of those with disabilities in any program or organization that receives federal funds such as the case of public and private schools. This legal document allows students to have access to additional resources in the classroom to help struggling students ensure academic success. It doesn’t necessarily modify the curriculum like an IEP, but rather provides more accommodations and assistance to a student who is having difficulty in the classroom. This means that students learn the same curriculum as their general education peers though on a slightly different path.
Examples of Accommodations for a Student with a Mental Health Issue
So what do some accommodations look like for a student with a mental health issue? These accommodations could look like:
- Extended time for an assignment or exam
- Having testing completed in another classroom that is quieter
- Providing multiple methods of demonstrating knowledge
- Daily check-ins
- Preferential seating away from distractions or certain peers
The specific accommodations are formed through a collaboration of staff, parents, and possibly the student, depending on their age and understanding.
If you feel that an IEP or 504 Plan for your child may be right for your child, begin by contacting your child’s school administrator or counseling department. These individuals are either serve as the leaders for these programs or will know how to connect you to the individuals who are responsible who are. Speak up and let your voice be heard. You have the ability to impact your child and their future and one day, your children will thank you for this.
Child Mind Institute Children’s Mental Health Report Finds an Estimated 17.1 Million Young People in the U.S. Have or Have Had a Diagnosable Psychiatric Disorder.” Child Mind Institute, 15 May 2015, childmind.org/news/child-mind-institute-childrens-mental-health-report-finds-an-estimated-17-1-million-young-people-in-the-u-s-have-or-have-had-a-diagnosable-psychiatric-disorder/.
Tracy Glantz, MS, is an Educational Therapist at CHI Health.