Ensuring Your Child is Supported at School

MAY. 14, 2018

By Deborah Offner, Ph.D.


At least 1 in 5 school-aged children is affected by a mental health condition. The two most common conditions among children and adolescents are anxiety followed by depression, but children can have other difficulties that affect their ability to fully take part in and benefit from their classroom experiences. These include attention deficit-hyperactivity, autism spectrum disorder and eating disorders.

Many children can also suffer from emotional reactions to the strain of learning issues, medical illness, family financial struggles, personal problems or other stressors. While not all mental health problems directly affect students’ academic or school functioning, many do, and schools can help.

If your child’s mental health condition is affecting their functioning at school, your first step should be to identify their condition with either a mental health professional or pediatrician and present this diagnostic information to the school.

With younger children (grades K-5), it may make sense to start with your child’s classroom teacher, while with middle or high school students, it’s usually best to start with the school’s health and wellness specialist. Virtually all public and private schools have at least one person who handles student mental health concerns—generally a guidance counselor, social worker, nurse or psychologist. And keep in mind that by law, schools are required to offer some level of accommodation to students with mental health needs; the nature and extent of that support will depend on your child’s particular condition and the resources at the school’s disposal. Your child’s school may have more resources than you might imagine, depending, of course, on your child’s age, condition and particular school setting.

Your next step will be to call a meeting with that designated specialist—or, if the issues have risen to a significant level, with a broader team that includes teachers and other school personnel.

Most parents get nervous meeting with school officials when their child is having behavioral or emotional problems. To support your best state of mind, consider having your child’s other parent or another close relative accompany you to the meeting. If your child is working with a mental health professional, see whether it’s possible to invite this person to the meeting as well. It can be extremely helpful to have an objective observer/expert/advocate with you!

Your partnership with the school is a key ingredient in ensuring that your child receives the support he or she needs. So, here are some tips for forging an effective alliance:

  1. Be honest, direct and specific. Most school personnel will respond with compassion and eagerness to help if they understand what is happening with your child and feel you are leveling with them. If you are vague, or appear to be holding back information, it will be harder for them to understand, and they may be less sympathetic.

  2. Ask questions about what teachers are seeing at school. Don’t assume they’re seeing what you see at home. Some children hold it together all day and then melt down as soon as they get home. Conversely, some children seem fine at home but can be disruptive, distracted or unhappy in classroom environments. Ask your child’s teachers about how your child presents at school. Don’t assume you know the whole story any more than you would assume they know the whole story.

  3. If you’re not sure where the best resources are within your child’s school, request to attend a staff meeting. Talking in-person with the group of players who can support your child is often more effective than sending long, detailed email messages or chatting over the phone with a single faculty or staff member.

  4. Know the law regarding special education support. If your child’s teachers, counselor and other staff are not able to accommodate your child in a supportive way (or if you want to make sure the school system will continue to do so from year-to-year), request an evaluation to see whether your child qualifies for special education services. Under the Americans with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, mental illness is grounds for “special education” needs in public schools systems provided they interfere with your child’s ability to make expected academic progress. Even students whose mental health needs do not meet the criteria for IDEA may be entitled to more modest accommodations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

There are few parenting experiences more difficult than seeing your child in emotional distress. It can be hard to think straight, and hard to believe that other adults will understand, care enough or know what to do. But your child’s teacher, guidance counselor or principal has likely encountered other students with similar issues and most educators would be naturally inclined to accommodate, include and support your child. And it’s their job to do so. Your job is to enlist their help.


Deborah Offner is a clinical psychologist, school consultant, and former dean of students at a Boston, Massachusetts high school. In her adolescent psychology practice in Newton, Massachusetts, she works directly with students and their parents. She also consults to school and college counselors as well as faculty, school leadership, and parent groups about student wellness and emotional health. Learn more about Dr. Offner at www.deborahoffnerphd.com.


We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices

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JUN, 05, 2018 08:33:28 AM
Mel B.
My daughter was diagnosed with anxiety & depression in 4th grade. At the same time she was evaluated for special ed services (by the school). As per NYS Education Law, she met the criteria for “a student with a disability” and labeled “emotional disturbance.” The label is listed in her IEP and as such she receives school accommodations related to her symptoms of anxiety & depression. She is now in 10th grade and attends a BOCES therapeutic school with 8 kids per class. Lori L.: yes there are modified school settings, inquire with the special education department in your school district. Laura A.: I have come to terms that my child is NOT a label but unfortunately needs a label to get the services she needs. Hope my comments help. By the way my daughter is doing FABULOUS in the therapeutic school😊

MAY, 28, 2018 07:52:51 PM
Lori Lute
I have a child that is DMDD, ODD, ADHD and high functioning autistic. She has rage episodes that are not controlled by meds as yet. She is physically disabled and feeds with a g tube and is 8 years old. We are homeschooling for the above reasons. She is sooo lonely. I want to put her in a school but a public school would not be wise. Is there a modified school setting for children with mental illnesses?

MAY, 21, 2018 11:50:20 PM
Cecelia Price-Jones
Thanks for this post! Looking for supportive resources for parents of my client!

MAY, 21, 2018 01:35:44 PM
Karen Kline
I need help against schools, hospitals and the Police!!!

MAY, 17, 2018 06:16:19 PM
Patricia F.
'The “school counselor” likely holds a teaching certificate and nothing else.' Not correct. In most states, school counseling is a separate certification that can only be obtained by someone with a master's degree in guidance and counseling or a related field, or graduate coursework satisfying specified competencies. Experience and certification as a teacher may be a prerequisite for employment as a school counselor but alone is NOT sufficient. According to the American School Counselor Association, "Most public school systems require advanced-degree courses that include the following topics: human growth and development, theories, individual counseling, group counseling, social and cultural foundations, testing/appraisal, research and program evaluation, professional orientation, career development, supervised practicum, [and] supervised internship" (From "State Certification Requirements"). Some school counselors also are licensed mental health professionals outside of their school district employment. Some elementary counselors are certified as play therapists, as well. A parent should check with their state's educator certification body to learn more about the education and experience requirements for school counselors in their state.

MAY, 16, 2018 03:30:00 PM
Patricia F.
Just a heads-up re: point #4 above, "Know the law": IDEA is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (not the Americans with Disabilities Education Act).

MAY, 16, 2018 08:50:23 AM
Debra Brownstone
Is mental health diagnosis of anxiety or depression (or even Bipolar), alone, an approved diagnosis for automatic adsistance with schools for an IEP or 504? Our local area administrator (superintendent or principal) spoke an the radio about mental health needs not being recognized as a disability with schools and that there should be more avenues for help to schools and parents with those special needs children....

MAY, 15, 2018 02:35:47 PM
Laura Aguilar
I don't want my son labeled at school. Do I have to put him in a special program at school in order to get help from the school?

MAY, 15, 2018 07:08:17 AM
Great post! I encourage parents to be honest with the school about their child’s psychiatric history and treatment, including current medications. Parents need to understand that some states do not require the “school counselor” to be a clinically licensed mental health professional. The “school counselor” likely holds a teaching certificate and nothing else. Why is this important? Because your child’s needs may be outside a “school counselor’s” level of competency. Also be aware that special education teachers may not have the skills and training to fully understand how to help your child succeed. Advocate for your child by asking about school staff credentials, their experience and training. It is critical to make sure school staff working with your child are able to communicate with external mental health providers your child may also see, like a licensed professional counselor or a psychiatrist. Coordination of care between the family, the school and other providers is crucial for success. Sign authorizations for disclosure of information to collaborate care for your child. Ask for updates about how your child is doing and don’t wait until the annual meeting. Let your child’s team at school know if there are serious changes in the home. For children struggling with stress at home (domestic violence, animal cruelty, constant arguing, grief/loss, chronic illness, past trauma, substance abuse, economic issues, chronic unemployment), be aware that parents in these families often have mental health needs, too. The schools can only do so much for a child who experiences serious issues at home. Parents must be willing to get help for themselves in order to help their child. Be honest and ask for help. Parenting and teaching are two of the toughest jobs out there. It’s in everyone’s best interests to help one another.

MAY, 14, 2018 04:36:28 PM
Lizanne Corbit
This is such a helpful, and informative read. Having this kind of knowledge as a part can be wonderfully comforting, and supportive. It's important to know that we can see teachers and schools as our allies when it comes to helping support our children and their needs. While teachers can't change everything to suit the specific needs of your child, they can be aware and make small adjustments or modifications to help foster a safe, and supportive learning environment.

Submit to the NAMI Blog

We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.

Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.