Mental Illness in the Classroom

 August 12, 2012

With the summer winding down and the start of a new school year around the corner, I have been thinking about the challenges of mental illness in the classroom. The mental health of children is something that can not be ignored.

Did you know that, according to the National Prevention, Health Promotion and Public Health Council, about one in five youths experience a mental, emotional, or behavior disorder at some point in their lifetime?

With that many youth experiencing some type of mental, emotional, or behavior disorder, it is impossible not to address the impact of mental illness in the classroom.  The challenges are great.  Budget cuts, teacher shortages, classroom overcrowding, lack of mental health training in teachers and school administrators can all contribute to an inability to properly address mental illness in the classroom.

If your child has a mental illness, what can you do to assist in your child’s education?  The National Institute of Mental Health addresses several questions for parents related to the treatment of mental illness in children and school.  I have listed them below.

Q. How do I work with my child’s school?

A. If your child is having problems in school, or if a teacher raises concerns, you can work with the school to find a solution. You may ask the school to conduct an evaluation to determine whether your child qualifies for special education services. However, not all children diagnosed with a mental illness qualify for these services.

Start by speaking with your child’s teacher, school counselor, school nurse, or the school’s parent organization. These professionals can help you get an evaluation started. Also, each state has a Parent Training and Information Center and a Protection and Advocacy Agency that can help you request the evaluation. The evaluation must be conducted by a team of professionals who assess all areas related to the suspected disability using a variety of tools and measures.

Q. What resources are available from the school?

A. Once your child has been evaluated, there are several options for him or her, depending on the specific needs. If special education services are needed, and if your child is eligible under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the school district must develop an “individualized education program” specifically for your child within 30 days.

If your child is not eligible for special education services, he or she is still entitled to “free appropriate public education,” available to all public school children with disabilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Your child is entitled to this regardless of the nature or severity of his or her disability.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights enforces Section 504 in programs and activities that receive Federal education funds. Visit programs for children with disabilities for more information.

Q. What special challenges can school present?

A. Each school year brings a new teacher and new schoolwork. This change can be difficult for some children. Inform the teachers that your child has a mental illness when he or she starts school or moves to a new class. Additional support will help your child adjust to the change.

Q. What else can I do to help my child?

A. Children with mental illness need guidance and understanding from their parents and teachers. This support can help your child achieve his or her full potential and succeed in school. Before a child is diagnosed, frustration, blame, and anger may have built up within a family. Parents and children may need special help to undo these unhealthy interaction patterns. Mental health professionals can counsel the child and family to help everyone develop new skills, attitudes, and ways of relating to each other.

Parents can also help by taking part in parenting skills training. This helps parents learn how to handle difficult situations and behaviors. Training encourages parents to share a pleasant or relaxing activity with their child, to notice and point out what their child does well, and to praise their child’s strengths and abilities. Parents may also learn to arrange family situations in more positive ways. Also, parents may benefit from learning stress-management techniques to help them deal with frustration and respond calmly to their child’s behavior.

Sometimes, the whole family may need counseling. Therapists can help family members find better ways to handle disruptive behaviors and encourage behavior changes. Finally, support groups help parents and families connect with others who have similar problems and concerns. Groups often meet regularly to share frustrations and successes, to exchange information about recommended specialists and strategies, and to talk with experts.

Source: National Institute of Mental Health-Treatment of Children with Mental Illness


I have several friends that can attest to the importance of parental involvement in the education of children with mental illness.  They are model parents in being proactive in this often challenging situation.  Ideally, parents should be involved but this may not always happen.  What if parents do not recognize that their child has a problem? What if parents do not know how to handle their child? Or what if the parent may not have the ability or resources to assist their child?

On the flip side, what if a teacher or school administrator does not know how to handle a child with a mental illness? What if the child is “labeled” as a discipline problem when, in fact, he or she has a disorder?  Or what if the school and classroom environment is not one of acceptance but rather stigma and bullying?

I wish I had all the answers to these questions but I do not.  All of these situations create an even greater challenge in the schooling of a child with a mental illness or disorder. But they are all situations that can be overcome.  It may take time, patience, perseverance, effective communication between the school and the parent(s) and, most importantly, training and education on mental illness.

If you are a parent with a child that has a mental illness or a teacher teaching children with mental illness, I ask you what has worked best in your situation?  What has caused the most difficulty?  Please comment on this post.  Your insights and comments can help others in a similar situation.

Additional reading:

School Materials for a Mental Health Friendly Classroom: Eliminating Barriers for Learning: An Administrator’s Guide

How Does Mental Illness Affect The Classroom?

Teaching about Mental Illness in the Classroom

How does mental illness interfere with school performance?

Issues in Mental Health: Mental Illness Awareness

Mental and Emotional Well-being