This post appeared on the International Bipolar Foundation’s website, here.
You may not think of fall as a time of new beginnings, but if you have a child in school, the new school year is certainly that.
Supporting your child at school is difficult enough but throw a mental illness into the mix and that becomes incalculably more difficult. If you suffer from a mental illness and are lost on how to ensure that your child learns the most they can at school, read on for a guide on how to support your child in school as a parent with mental illness.
1. Keep Communication Channels Open
Children with a parent who suffers a mental illness may not understand why their parent acts as they do. Young children especially will come up with narratives to explain why a mom with depression stays in bed all day, often making that problem their fault.
Kids going to school, especially kids who know their parents are different and don’t know why may be ostracized and/or bullied by their peers. So to combat all of these issues, keep communication channels open. Talk to your child about your mental illness, explaining in age-appropriate ways why you act differently from their friends’ parents.
And talking to your kid helps them know what you expect of them, which is important for stable home life.
Click here for a deeper look into how to talk to your children about your mental illness.
2. Set up a Routine – And Stick to It
When my first child was just a baby, my therapist at the time told me that consistency was key to raising him in a healthy manner. As a parent with bipolar disorder, which makes consistency next to impossible, I hated to hear that then and I hate to admit it now, but she was right.
But a consistent pattern is the best way to support your child in school, too. If you are consistently feeding them breakfast, have a predictable morning routine to get out the door, and have a decompressing routine in the afternoon after school, then your kid will be better off than when living a life of chaos.
Click here for a post on how and why to establish a routine.
3. Get to Know the School Staff
You don’t have to join the PTSA but knowing who’s who at your kid’s school is an effective step to supporting them through the system.
Schools have open houses at the beginning of the year to introduce you to the classrooms and teachers. Make every effort to attend these and learn your kid’s teachers’ names and what they look like. Find out what the best way to contact these people is, be it phone calls, emails, texts, or website contact form.
If your child has a problem, be it academically or emotionally, their teachers will be the first to know – and the first people you should contact. They’re the people on the inside, the ones who interact with your baby for at least an hour a day in close observation in a new environment.
Following up with that, also learn who your kids’ counselors are. If your child has a mental health issue at school, they will be sent to the counselor, and you will need to keep in close contact with them to get to the bottom of the issue. They can determine the next steps in treating a problem, be that involving medical professionals or keeping your student home for a spell.
Nipping problems in the bud is easier than letting them develop into behemoth knots that take more time, energy, and mental headspace to untangle. Keep a close eye on your student’s report cards and go to their teachers or counselors if they have an issue.
I would also recommend an extra step: put the school’s office line, counselors’ lines, and tardy/absence reporting line into your contacts on your phone. If your school has an alert system for snow days, sign up to be contacted. Knowing more about your school always helps.
4. Apply for Accommodations if Your Child Needs Them
If your child is having serious academic issues and you and/or their teachers suspect a learning disability or mental health condition like ADHD, they may need an IEP or 504 plan.
An IEP is an Individualized Educational Plan, a program of accommodations or modifications like a new textbook or longer test times developed by a team of experts. They will observe your child and give a report based on their schoolwork and behavior. You will be able to review this report with the team and if necessary, contest it.
Once your child qualifies for special education, the team will come up with a plan in 30 calendar days.
A 504 plan only differs from an IEP from who it serves: IEPs only cover kids in grades K-12 whereas 504 plans can cover collegiate-level students.
Requesting an IEP plan is a lot of work because you must go through official channels with the administrative staff, but don’t be afraid to fight for your kid if they need you in their corner.
5. Help Your Children Do Their Homework
Until schools stop assigning it, homework is essential for your child’s success. Not only is it part of your child’s grade, completing the homework prepares them for their upcoming tests.
Even if you don’t know the subject or don’t speak the school’s language, you can support your kid by setting up a quiet place for them to study, establishing a regular homework time, and checking in on them regularly.
Praise them for their efforts but don’t do their homework for them, as that ultimately won’t help them.
Supporting your child in school when you have a mental illness boils down to talking to them, sticking to routines, getting to know the school staff, applying for accommodations if your kid needs them, and helping them with their homework.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it can be a jumping-off point for you as you support your child. Compassion for yourself and your kid as you all make this transition also helps, so try to give yourself and them grace.
I wish you well in your journey!