As a parent or caregiver, it can be frustrating to watch your child struggle at school with behavioral, emotional, learning or attention issues and not know how to help them. Often, when children are grappling with emotional and behavioral challenges, these difficulties interfere with their school performance and functioning. As a result, they may need help — not just with their academics, but also to address their emotional needs.
Ensuring that your child is supported in school is critical to their future success. The consequences of poor academic performance and dropping out can have a far-reaching impact on a child’s life.
Obtaining support for your child in school can be challenging, as school systems are frequently difficult to navigate. It’s important to remember that you are the expert on your child and in the best position to advocate for what they need. By leveraging information that only a parent or caregiver would know, you can offer insights regarding your child’s needs, strengths, interests and other qualities which will be useful in supporting and facilitating the accommodations that they need.
How to Navigate the School System
Speak with the Teacher
It’s always a good first step to begin by speaking with your child’s teacher(s). They can share observations and provide their observations of your child’s performance, strengths and areas posing a challenge. They can also share their thoughts about what may be interfering with your child’s performance and make suggestions to improve it. However, it is not a teacher’s expertise or responsibility to offer a suggestion of a diagnosis of what is causing difficulties for your child.
Know Your Child’s Rights
Quality education is a fundamental human right, protected under the law. Knowing your rights will empower you to advocate effectively and insist on accountability from the school. Section 504 and the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are both federal regulations put in place to protect the rights of children with disabilities, including those with mental health concerns, guaranteeing that all children have a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).
There are two levels of accommodation plans in most schools: Individual Educational Plans (IEPs) that are the most intensive and comprehensive or Section 504 Plans that are less intensive. An IEP may include time outside class in a “Resource Room,” psychological counseling, extra time for tests and more. The 504s generally keep the child in the classroom, but they have many accommodations you and the team agree upon.
Request an Evaluation
This is a formal process where you can request services under IDEA if you feel your child’s mental health issues are interfering with their ability to learn.
The request must be provided to the school in writing, and you will need to keep copies of all correspondence for your records. The request could be as simple as a single sentence that says, “I am requesting an evaluation for my child,” or you can be more detailed regarding your specific concerns in the request.
A core evaluation lays the foundation for creating accommodations. A comprehensive evaluation will provide insight and give you a better understanding of what will be necessary to provide optimal support, allowing your child to meet their social, emotional and academic goals.
The school typically arranges the evaluation, at their expense, and can be provided by a school psychologist or through an outside professional. This evaluation process is necessary even if your child has already received a medical diagnosis from a psychiatrist, pediatrician or a neurologist. This is a separate evaluation.
Take an Active Role in Meetings
Following the evaluation, you and your child (if appropriate) will meet with the IEP Team on Special Education. Others on the team — typically teachers, the school psychologist (who will review the testing if performed outside of the school), school nurse, those who performed any components of the evaluation and anyone you wish to contribute, such as your child’s psychiatrist or psychologist — are encouraged to participate. You have the right to invite anyone that you choose to attend these meetings with you, including members of your child’s treatment team. You can also present any supporting collateral information, such as letters from your child’s providers.
During this meeting, you will discuss the evaluation and go over the recommendations for accommodations, modifications and other related services to create a plan to support your child. You and your child are a critical part of the IEP and must approve of the school’s recommendations. You have the right to appeal any decisions that you don’t agree with, or if you feel your child is not receiving the services that they need.
Maintain Consistent Communication
Request that teachers report any time the interventions in place appear to be ineffective so that you can work with them to update the plan accordingly. Regular and frequent communication will be integral to the success of the plan.
To advocate for your child the best you can, you will need to build a positive and collaborative relationship with school staff. Keep the lines of communication open and the conversations positive.
Seek Help through an Advocate
The process of obtaining IEPs and 504s can be difficult. Advocates can help you understand the services available and make sure that the school is meeting your child’s needs. Reach out to your local NAMI for help finding advocates in your community. If this is not enough, the next step is obtaining an educational attorney who can argue on your behalf to demand that your child receive the services they need.
- NAMI Basics
NAMI Basics is a six-session education program for parents, caregivers and other family who provide care for youth who are experiencing mental health symptoms.
- Supporting Back to School Wellness
Here are a few tips for teachers on how to make students’ transition back to the classroom a little bit easier during these uncertain times.
- School Mental Health Resource Poster
Teachers can help students access vital mental health resources easily and confidentially with this convenient poster. Students can tear away important mental health resource information or scan the QR code to save contacts directly into their phones. NAMI recommends pre-cutting the tear aways at the bottom and tearing off the first one to relieve the pressure of any student being the first to take one.