Children and youth with mental health challenges sometimes experience difficulty at school for a variety of reasons. ACMH receives frequent calls from parents whose kids are struggling to be successful or sometimes not even being allowed to stay at school due to un-addressed mental health needs. Accessing the services that children and youth may need to help them better manage and support their mental health needs at school can be quite challenging. We hope this section will help.
Why Does Mental Health Matter in Schools?
Addressing mental health needs in school is critically important because 1 in 5 children and youth have a diagnosable emotional, behavioral or mental health disorder and 1 in 10 young people have a mental health challenge that is severe enough to impair how they function at home, school or in the community.1
Many estimates show that even though mental illness affects so many of our kids aged 6-17 at least one-half and many estimate as many as 80% of them do not receive the mental health care they need.2
Being able to recognize and support kids mental health in schools matters because:
- Mental health problems are common and often develop during childhood and adolescence
- They are treatable!
- Early detection and intervention strategies work. They can help improve resilience and the ability to succeed in school & life.
In addition, youth with emotional and behavioral disorders have the worst graduation rate of all students with disabilities. Nationally, only 40 percent of students with emotional, behavioral and mental health disorders graduate from high school, compared to the national average of 76 percent; 3 and, Over 50% of students with emotional and behavioral disabilities ages 14 and older, drop out of high school. This is the highest drop out rate of any disability group! 4
Obviously we have to do better! This section of the website will try to offer suggestions on how you might go about troubleshooting problems you may encounter when trying to access the support your child needs at school.
How Do Mental Health Disorders Affect Children and Youth at School?
Mental Health Disorders can affect classroom learning and social interactions, both of which are critical to the success of students. However, if appropriate services are put in place to support a young person’s mental health needs we can often maximize success and minimize negative impacts for students.
One of the problems that families frequently run in to is getting the school to recognize the role of mental health disorders in relationship to the difficulty their child is having. Getting agreement to put strategies in place to address mental health issues and help the youth to better manage his or her mental health symptoms at school is sometimes equally as challenging.
Children’s mental health can affect young people in a variety of ways to varying degrees in the school environment. One child’s symptoms may be really hard to manage at school while another child with the same condition may not have much difficulty. In addition, like all of us, kids with mental health challenges have good days and bad, as well as, times periods when they are doing really well and times when their mental health symptoms become more difficult to manage.
When figuring out the types of supports and services to put in place, it is important to keep in mind that all kids are unique with differing needs and coping mechanisms. The mental health interventions that are chosen need to be based on the individual needs of each child and be able to flex in order to provide more or less support as needed.
Children with mental health needs often need a variety of types of supports in school for them to be successful. For example, 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 avoid the problem from escalating.
Sometimes meeting mental health needs in schools may require special instruction and/or practice. For example, if your child needs help for difficulties with social interactions or communication difficulties it may help to teach them new skills and have them practice using them by role-playing or trying them out in small groups.
It is also helpful to look at how mental health symptoms may affect a child in the classroom and the accommodations that may help. For example, children and youth with anxiety disorders may often struggle in school because they are so pre-occupied with their ‘worries’ that it makes it hard for them to pay attention. They may have physical complaints like stomach and headaches and may be frequently absent. They may also have trouble starting or completing their work because they are worried that it won’t be right. Sometimes their fear of being embarrassed, or getting something wrong or their fear of having to interact with others may lead them to them to avoid group and social activities and perhaps school all-together.
Possible accommodations or strategies that may help include:
- Allowing flexible deadlines or letting the student have an option to re-do work so they feel more confident turning it in.
- Helping the teacher to recognize escalating anxiety in a child and equipping them with the tools to intervene and help the child to implement strategies that help manage their anxiety.
- Pre-planning for group discussions to help reduce their anxiety about what they will share or say.
- Make plan for what to do when they are unable to focus due to worries.
- Allow for breaks or opportunities to de-stress.
You can download a list of accommodations that may help here: Accomodations & Instructional Strategies
How to Navigate Problems At School:
How you, as a parent, go about navigating problems at school for your child will depend on a variety of factors including the nature of the problem itself and whether or not your child needs or receives special services.
One strategy that is always helpful no matter how you attempt to solve problems is to work to build a strong working relationship with your child’s school and the people in it. This can sometimes feel challenging at first, especially if you feel the school is not yet willing to do what you think your child needs to be successful. But try to keep in mind that you and the professionals at school really do have a common goal in mind and that is to help your child be successful at school. For more information about how to successfully advocate for your child’s needs in school download a list of tips that may help you here: Parent Tipsheet Successful Advocacy at School
If you feel your child’s mental health issues are making them unable to learn and progress at school they may qualify for special education or a supports from Section 504. For more information about the process of seeing if they are eligible for either of these programs click here to get an overview of process.
Whether or not your child receives special education services you can work with the school to try to get some supports in place to meet their needs.
If your child is having trouble in their classroom it might be best to first meet with the teacher and let them know your concerns. They may have some ideas and be willing to put some strategies in place to help your child.
If that doesn’t resolve the problem you may also want to try to include other school staff such as the principle, social worker, etc. In addition, if your child receives private or public mental health services it may be helpful to ask your child’s therapist to be a part of the meeting as well, as they may be able to provide some much needed insight about what might help your child.
Before any of these meetings take place it is always helpful to take the time to prepare by listing your concerns, including the things that you think your child is struggling with at school and the things you think will help them. It can also be helpful for you to think about the things that might make your child worse or aggravate their mental health condition.
When you meet and share your concerns, whether informally or in a formal meeting the professionals at your school will be able to offer suggestions about strategies they think may help. Again it can be helpful for you to review possible accommodations prior to the meeting with the school and select some to share that you think might be especially helpful for your child.
After the meeting with the school where you discussed your child’s needs the school may want to do some classroom observations to better understand your child needs. Then you can work with the school to agree to put some strategies in place to help your child be more successful. It is important to keep in mind that the first try isn’t always a success. You and the school may find out you need to go back to the drawing board and come up with new strategies.
If you are unable to get the school to put strategies in place or adjust them if they are not working, pleas feel free to call ACMH for help.
In addition to the suggestions above ACMH also has a pre-recorded webinar presentation: Meeting the Needs of Students With Mental Health Challenges in Schools located on the Michigan Alliance for Families (MAF) website that you can listen to by clicking here that may help you as you advocate for your child.
Michigan Alliance has several other videos on their site that may be helpful to you and they have Parent Mentors in each region of the state who can assist you to better understand the special education process and partner with your local school.
Behavioral Issues at School
For information about how to address behavioral issues at school and creating positive behavior support plans if you child receives special education services or has a 504 Plan click here to explore the Overview of the Special Education System.
If your child does not receive special education you can still work with the school to put a plan in place to address behavior issues.
Often if you can get the school to consider providing some of the accommodations or modifications discussed above to support your child when their mental health symptoms affect them at school this alone can help to reduce behavior problems.
Sometimes though some children and youth have ongoing behavioral challenges that may need additional support. You can work with the school to come up with a plan to support your child and teach them new skills in an effort to reduce behavior problems and help your child and the school cope with them when they do.
Plans should be focused on helping kids to recognize the things that can trigger behavioral issues and also teaching new behaviors and skills and allowing opportunities for the student to practice them.
Remember that your input can be critical when working to create a successful behavior plan for your child as you know your child best!
Suspension & Expulsion
If your child is being excluded from school by being sent home or suspended click here and scroll down to learn more about discipline issues at school including suspension & expulsion. If your child is eligible for special education and/or if your child’s school is aware that he or she has a disability, there are limits to the school’s ability to suspend or exclude your child from school for behavior related to your child’s disability. For more information regarding school discipline, suspension, expulsion and safeguards for students with disabilities and those receiving special education, click here: http://www.michiganallianceforfamilies.org/education/discipline/.
Getting Formal Help to Resolve Disagreements with the School
When you are seeking special education services for your child or when the school is providing these services, sometimes problems or disagreements arise about what should be happening to support your child. When disagreements occur it is always best to try to resolve the problem by speaking with your school team and sharing your concerns. However if you are unable to work the issues out in this way, there are other formal and informal options for resolving disagreements including working your way up the ‘chain of command’ at your school, requesting mediation to resolve a problem and filing complaints.
For more information about dispute resolution options please visit:
Michigan Alliance for Families at:
Michigan Special Education Mediation Program at:
If you find yourself struggling to help your child’s school accommodate for your child’s mental health needs please contact ACMH and a Family Resource Specialist will try to connect you to the information you need.
1Kessler, R. C., Berglund, P., Demler, O., et al. (2005). Life-time prevalence and age-of-onset distribution of DSM-IV disorders in the national co-morbidity survey replication. Archives of General Psychiatry 62, 593-602.
2Kataoka, S.; Zhang, L.; & Wells, K. (2002). Unmet need for mental health care among U.S. children: Variation by ethnicity and insurance status. American Journal of Psychiatry, 159(9), pp. 1548-1555.
3U.S. Department of Education, Twenty-third annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Washington, D.C., 2001.
4Data Resource Center for Child & Adolescent Health. (2005/2006). National Survey of Children with Special Health Care Needs. Portland, OR: The Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative (CAHMI). childhealthdata.org/browse/survey/results?q=1099&r=1