As a teacher, how can you and the school help?

“Kids spend six hours a day in school, and mental health is essential to learning. So schools that are very data-driven understand that in order for some kids to succeed, their mental health needs must be met,” writes Darcy Gruttadaro, director of advocacy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. That’s why a school is a potential partner for a parent who faces these challenges. The school can help detect the issue and be part of the solution. In this article, we outline how you can coordinate with the child’s parent to find the right help.

How to provide support to the child and their family

If a child under your supervision is experiencing mental health problems, coordinate closely with the child’s parents. Establish an open line of communication, so you and the family can share as much information as possible to better support the child in their treatment. If you suspect a child is dealing with a mental health issue or if a known issue is brought to your attention, follow these steps:

  1. Request a meeting with the child’s parents and the school counselor to discuss what the child is experiencing, offer your support, and explore what day-to-day assistance might be needed. In middle or high school, consider engaging other teachers or staff who have a good relationship with the student. Often, students have a close relationship with a coach, band director or someone not a classroom teacher.
  2. Communicate with the parents and school counselor regularly to monitor the child’s progress and performance in school, and offer additional support or referrals as needed.
  3. If you do not feel the child is getting enough support, you may need to reach out to the school’s administrative team, such as a vice principle or principal, for guidance in how to proceed.

When meeting with the family, express compassion and your sincere desire to help. This will lessen the parents’ frustration and stress, and help assure them that you want to help.

Fundamentally, you are likely in this profession because you truly care about children, and want to provide support and resources whenever possible. The best way to provide that support is to communicate often with the parents and other appropriate school staff. Remember, as a teacher or youth worker, you can be a strong advocate and ally for a child’s well-being.

Special education curricula and programs

In consultation with the child’s parents, you may need to consider moving the child to a special education class; those services can often open doors to additional support. There are myriad programs 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 examples of 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, how 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.

Keep in mind that an IEP plan is most likely required before a child can be placed in a special education program. 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 a child’s special education evaluation.”

A diagnosed mental illness is considered a disability. Parents, along with teachers, school counselors, and administrators, will need to demonstrate the 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 actively participate in creating an environment that helps the child overcome their hurdles.

The process begins with a parent, guardian or school personnel requesting a full and individual evaluation of the student’s needs. Next, there is an eight-step process 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, an evaluation, IEP planning, and determining ongoing evaluative measures. The Texas Project FIRST website (www.texasprojectfirst.org) contains a wealth of information parents and caregivers will find valuable throughout the process.

Throughout the process, continue to communicate openly and cooperatively with the child’s parents and other school staff and administrators. The more information you provide about what you see at school and how it may harm the child’s education, the better.

While services and support are available, the road to getting this support can be difficult. Schools have limited resources and prioritize based on most critical needs. They have procedures that can make access time consuming and complex. For that reason, the parents may need to work with experts who can help them obtain the needed help, especially if they’ve tried on their own and didn’t get the results they hoped for. Be open to facilitating the best result for the student.

There are organizations that offer parent education classes on how to best advocate for their child, such as the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) or the National Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health. Some local organizations can provide support with IEP meetings, which in Texas also are called Admission, Review and Dismissal (ARD) meetings. Provide this information to the family and encourage them to use these resources.

A child experiencing a mental illness has the same right to public educational opportunities as other children; you can be instrumental is seeing that it happens.