Back to School: Practical Tips for Kids with Mental Health Disabilities
By, Eowyn T. Gatlin-Nygaard, LICSW -Headway Therapist
For many kids going to back to school means making new friends, learning, and growing. But for kids who have a mental health disability, going back to school comes with some unique challenges.
Not only do they have to navigate the regular stuff, like new classrooms and new rules, but they also have to manage their mental health symptoms-which can be overwhelming for both kids and their parents or caregivers. If you are the parent or caregiver of a child with a mental health disability, there are a few things you can do to make the transition back to school a little easier.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is check in with your child before the school year starts. Set aside time to have a conversation and find out what they are both excited and nervous about. Review things they struggled with last school year, such as staying in the classroom or getting along with peers, then come up with a few strategies to address these concerns and building on what has worked before. Once their concerns and yours have been addressed, steer the conversation toward some of the regular things kids look forward to about the start of the school year, like what outfit they can wear on the first day or what activities they want to do.
Sometimes kids will say they have no concerns and that nothing will go wrong this year, but that is most likely wishful thinking. If your child does this, let them know that while you want the year to go well too, it is normal for kids who have mental health disabilities to struggle at times. Be sure to let them know that you will love and support them even if some of last year's problems resurface. This is important because kids often feel like they've failed if their symptoms return or worsen. It is important for both you and your child to go into the school year with reasonable expectations. As the saying goes, "Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst."
Another thing you can do early in the school year or even the week before school starts, is connect with your child's teachers and guidance staff. When you talk with them, let them know what concerns you and your child have, and work with them to find solutions.
If your child has a 504 Plan or Individualized Education Plan (IEP), this is a great time to explore what the accommodations in it will look like this year and review what worked and didn't work last school year. IEPs and 504 Plans are legal documents that ensure school staff and parents are on the same page with regards to supporting students with disabilities.
If your child is not on an IEP or 504 Plan, consult with school staff for more information and to see if getting one would be helpful. When you check in with school staff at the start of the year, make sure to also let them know about positive things in your child's life and what your child's hopes are for the new school year.
Raising a child with a mental health disability isn't easy and no family does it without help. Keeping an open dialogue with your child about their mental health and seeking support can make a huge difference in helping children cope with mental health symptoms. If at any time you feel your child needs more support, reach out to the school or check in with Headway to see what type of support is available. If we can't help, we'll gladly refer you to someone who can.
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