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National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Back-to-School Strategies for Parents of Children Living With Mental Illness

August 23, 2005

For children living with mental illness, going back to school is loaded with potential obstacles and stressors including changing routines, scholastic and social expectations, separation, and excitement.

The start of the school year often triggers anxiety for parents of children with mental illnesses as well. New teachers and environments often mean new challenges, but they can also signal new opportunities for success.

The following are some suggested strategies to consider and adapt to help build a foundation for a successful school year for the child living with mental illness.

  1. Address any known problems in a straightforward manner as soon as possible. Request a meeting in advance of the first day, if possible. Notify the school and teachers of any recent medication or treatment plans that are of significance. Communicate your support of the teacher's critical role with your child. Review any special education plans that were drafted the year before, if applicable. Provide information about your child’s disorder and be a resource for information for the school and the teachers.
  2. Secure arrangements to take the child to school before the first day. Do a walk through of the environment and meet teachers and office staff. Familiarity with his or her physical surroundings will help diminish first day anxieties.
  3. Support self-esteem. Identify the child’s strengths and hook the child in through existing interests. Keep on the lookout for a developing or possible friendship and encourage a sleep over, movie outing, or gaming day. Set small goals or suggest ideas first and then build to larger expectations, supporting and reinforcing along the way.
  4. Help the child organize and structure. Working with the teacher, determine how assignments will be communicated and request an advanced copy of deadlines and assignments. Pop quizzes can be a disaster for a child struggling in his or her recovery; it is OK to request that a heads-up be afforded. If possible, ask the child to share his or her class schedule with you, but realize that sometimes recalling such details can be a challenge. If you have a fax machine, ask the teacher to fax assignment outlines weekly, or secure alternative arrangements to get them delivered to you each week.
  5. Ask for and make arrangements to receive weekly behavior/performance updates. The end of a grading period is not the time to find out that the child has missed all homework assignments. Develop a form with the school’s guidance or special education liaison and have this completed by all teachers each week. Having it faxed or delivered with the child each Friday will help keep you on top of successes and failures so that both can be addressed promptly.
  6. Minimize distractions. Some strategies to consider include: take the child to school and avoid the bus for a week or two early in the year. Secure just-late arrival for the child to avoid crowded halls in the mornings. Ask that the child be assigned a seat near the front of the room. Or, for older students, request permission for use of a backpack with rollers so the child can have all materials available throughout the day, thus avoiding locker visits.
  7. Avoid homework hassles. Remember, it is the child’s work and grades, not the parents. Reinforce time management, break assignments down into parts with the child, support an organized place for after-school work, and if, necessary, negotiate extended time for assignments. Set homework rules and boundaries early and stick to them.
  8. Don’t be afraid to raise the bar. With your child’s input, determine what expectations you have for educational performance and stick to them. Confidence, self esteem, and recovery are all supported by success. Avoid automatically rescuing your child from all situations -- let the child experience self-reliance where possible and when appropriate.
  9. Consistently discipline and support play. Some children respond to "time out," a "thinking room" or other interruption to behavior challenges. Whatever your choice, parent with firm but loving consistency and set and stick to boundaries. Cartoons and video games are a privilege and can be very calming for some children with mental illness by helping them to decompress and cope with a confusing world. If you have other children, the rules should overlap and there should be consistency with expectations around certain behaviors, regardless of a diagnosis, usually including respectfulness, manners, and chores.
  10. Learn and express the law. Visit NAMI’s Children and Adolescent Action Center Web site   for valuable information on children's issues and to subscribe to the free Beginnings magazine. Visit the NAMI Web site to learn about IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This law mandates a "free and appropriate education" for children with disabilities, including children with mental illness (or emotional disturbance as it is designated in IDEA.) Seek out and garner the support of other parents through your NAMI affiliate, and learn your child’s rights as well as interventions that can be requested to support success.

Most importantly, parents should remember that they are the front line. They know more about their children than anyone else and their instincts are the sharpest. They are also human, have jobs and houses to run, other children to raise, and life stresses to manage. Parenting and personal balance are daily challenges for all, and especially for parents of children living with mental illness. Parents should be encouraged to ask questions, educate themselves, get support from others, remember to play themselves, and most importantly, never give up. Their love and support, regardless of the circumstances, are real and are ultimately all that really count.

Read more on NAMI’s efforts to educate schools about mental illness by visiting the NAMI Web site.

NAMI has developed an important resource, Parents and Teachers as Allies, which can be ordered from the NAMI Web site.

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