Children’s Mental Health and School Accommodations
As Ms. Hancock scans the classroom, she observes her students involved in her studies; she eagerly notes notes down notes and fills the classroom with a steady babble of conversations. To her initial delight, it seems as if the students understand the material and everything is going well and in its proper place, until she sees someone hiding in the corner.
Ms. Hancock takes this opportunity to approach, check in and see if she could help. She asks, “Cullen, are you doing well?” When no answer comes, she approaches a little closer and speaks with a little more empathy. “Cullen… Cullen, is there anything I can do for you”?
She watches him lift his head and carefully look at her with eyes covered in blood, swollen and covered in pain. Then, as if his spirit could no longer contain his pain, his shoulders begin to cramp and the sound of heavy breathing occurs. Tears trickle down his cheeks and the tip of his chin. His sobs spoke volumes for the words he did not say. Words he does not know how to speak due to his age and experience.
To comfort him, she puts her hand on his upper back. Instead of peace, however, she causes him even more grief and he groans: “I hate you. I hate my life!” Without pausing, he gets up and begins to approach the classroom door violently. She tries again to engage him, even though he is out of earshot and does not heed her request to return.
Many children struggle with mental illness
For those of you who have children or know a child well, there may be signs of mental health concerns – children who are steeped in pain, guilt, or anxiety, or who may be thinking of depression, extreme anxiety, or who have experienced severe PTSD due to trauma in the past.
If you can say anything about it, you are not alone. In the United States, 17.1 million children have mental health problems, and if you do, it means that 22 out of every 100 children experience the difficulties of a psychiatric disorder at some level.
Mental illness affects academic performance
What does this mean for them academically? The difficult answer is that we do not always know. Some students are able to manage their symptoms and stay on the ball in class with minimal or no problems at all.
However, for other students, the pressure and pull of mental illness distracts them from their studies and may cause behavioral problems or academic decline. Regardless of how a student shows and manages mental illness, it is crucial that you talk to 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 an Individual Education Plan (IEP) OR a 504 Plan in place. Both of these documents are legal documents that require execution by teachers and other school personnel.
The information contained in these plans include classroom modifications and/or accommodations that are tailored specifically to your child so that they have the necessary support to succeed in school. Although both plans help students in the classroom, each plan performs a slightly different function and applies to a different group of students.
Individual Education Plan (IEP)
The IEP came about 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 accommodations 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 impairment
- 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. ADHD 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 diagnoses 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 can list any number of modifications in the classroom, such as shortened assignments, simplified materials, alternative timetables, or changes to the grade scale used for projects or exams. The specific modifications available to a student are determined by teachers, administrators, parents, and possibly the student if age appropriate.
If you find that your child is experiencing difficulties at school and is unable to obtain the benefits of an IEP, a 504 plan can be a good option. The 504 plan was created in 1973 as a result of the Rehabilitation Act. It is intended to protect the rights of people with disabilities in all programs or organizations that receive federal funding, such as 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 does not necessarily change the curriculum like an IEP, but provides more accommodation and support for students who have difficulties in the classroom, which means that students learn the same curriculum as their peers in general education, albeit in a slightly different way.
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? They 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 created in collaboration between staff, parents and, if necessary, the student, depending on age and understanding.
If you feel that an IEP or 504 plan might be right for your child, first contact your child’s principal or counselor. These people are either the leaders of these programs or know how to get in touch with the person responsible. Talk to them and make your voice heard. You have the opportunity to influence your child and his or her future, and one day your children will thank you for that.
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.