For many parents, the middle of August is the most wonderful time of the year. After hearing a thousand iterations of “I’m bored!” and waging a positional (often losing) arms race against excessive screen time, we are thrilled to cram our children’s backpacks full of shiny new school supplies and post those “milestone” first-day-of-school pics to Instagram.
But for some parents—and children—the first day of school is a source of dread. All children can experience anxiety about starting a new school year. In many cases, with acknowledgment and reassurance, parents can alleviate those fears and help their children to navigate the transition successfully. But mental health conditions can exacerbate those common anxieties and fears, sometimes even making your child physically ill.
Couple that reality with society’s often unforgiving attitudes about mental illness, and both parent and child may be set up for failure before the first classroom bell even rings. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Why can’t he just snap out of it?” As a parent of a child who had undiagnosed mental health problems that were finally identified as juvenile bipolar disorder when he was 13, I’ve heard that question—from friends, family, teachers, and school administrators—more times than I can count.
But the fact is that children don’t just “snap out” of mental illness. And their anxiety, however irrational it may seem to outside observers, has real consequences for children’s physical and mental wellbeing. So what can we do when our children just won’t—or can’t—go to school? Of course, we worry. How can our children meet their educational goals if they aren’t in the classroom? Will they lose their friends? On the darker side of the worry spectrum, parents may fear that their children’s excessive absences will trigger truancy charges and even criminal prosecution.
Try these ideas to alleviate the back-to-school battles
If you’re one of those parents, I know your pain. Those early morning battles were a pretty regular occurrence in my household. Here are a few ideas that worked for me as I tried to support Eric’s mental health while also meeting his educational goals.
1. Plan ahead.
Change can be hard for children, especially when they have mental health conditions. Working with your child and the school ahead of time can help to alleviate some of the fear and anxiety your child may face.
With Eric, we would schedule a time to meet with his new teacher and tour his classroom ahead of time so that he could acclimate to the environment. Many school districts build these before-school open house times into their regular schedules, but you can also reach out to your child’s teacher individually because sometimes the crowds can be overwhelming for children who have sensory issues or anxiety. Teachers want our children to feel safe in the learning environment.
2. Believe your child and acknowledge his or her fears.
Why doesn’t your child want to go to school? Children need to feel heard. They need to know that they are safe. Ask questions about your child’s symptoms and concerns. Is there some specific environmental trigger that you and the school can address? Is your child worried about being bullied? Can you and your child work on an accommodation with the school that will help with your child’s concerns?
3. Address the attendance issues proactively in your child’s Individual Education Program (IEP) or Section 504 Plan.
When Eric completed his sophomore year of high school, his illness was so well managed that he no longer met the criteria for a Serious Emotional Disturbance (SED) IEP. This was both a blessing and a source of anxiety for both of us. While I certainly celebrated Eric’s success in managing his behaviors and triggers, I was also nervous about a relapse.
On his psychiatrist’s advice, we requested that unlimited mental health absences be written into his Section 504 Plan, which replaced the IEP. Eric did not need to use this provision until his senior year, when the stress of International Baccalaureate exams triggered numerous panic attacks, sensory issues, and a bout of severe depression. The school worked with us, and Eric worked with his teachers to ensure that he turned in his work. He completed high school successfully despite those senior year mental health challenges.
4. Consider a nontraditional school environment.
In seventh grade, Eric struggled at a large junior high school and ultimately had to be transferred to an alternative program that provided safety but could not meet his educational needs. In ninth grade, he was able to transfer into a small public charter school, and that change made a significant difference in his academic performance. The charter school environment was much easier to navigate—the staff, teachers, and students felt like family.
Charter schools aren’t always an option though. Some parents work with their schools to identify a therapeutic school for their children, though this option requires that the student have an IEP in place or can cost a significant amount of money. Some parents even decide to home school, though this isn’t always an option, especially for parents who have to work full time, as I did.
Whatever path you choose for your child, know that you are not alone. Parents of children with mental health conditions across the United States have the same hopes and dreams for their children that you have for yours. With planning, empathy, and a whole lot of patience, you and your child can address the issues that are affecting school attendance.
Learn more about mental health in the school
Many states have state-specific resources for children with special needs. For example, Texas has Project FIRST (Families, Information, Resources, Support, and Training). Their website links to a wide variety of resources, though not all of the links are functional.
The PACER Institute has a wealth of information and resources about children with special needs. This handout offers some practical tips for parents of children whose chronic illness causes frequent absences.
National Public Radio focused an entire series on mental health in schools. In this article, a mother of two children with mood disorders discusses the challenges she faced and her ultimate decision to home school one of her daughters.
The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process can be frustrating for everyone. In this article, Tracy Thompson, mother of a gifted 14-year old daughter with ADHD, anxiety disorder, and sensory processing issues, explores the “hell” of fighting for an education plan that fit her child’s needs.