How Parents and Schools Can Work Together to Support Mental Health

If your child had diabetes or a broken bone, you probably wouldn’t hesitate to let their teachers know. But what if the diagnosis is a mental health disorder? Should you share this information with their teachers, coaches and others?

The answer depends on the child, the diagnosis, and the teachers and other adults in your child’s school life, says UNC Health child psychologist Mary Beth Prieur, PhD. A lot of parents are asking the question—about 1 in 5 children had a mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral disorder before the pandemic, which has only exacerbated the youth mental health crisis.

If you have a supportive school environment, disclosure can be helpful, Dr. Prieur says.

“Often, schools make accommodations or have programs that provide support for children with any kind of disability,” she says. “Parents may not know what is available. That’s a good reason to talk with your child’s teachers.”

On the other hand, she says, mental health diagnoses may carry stigma, causing other students and even teachers to treat them differently. For your child’s privacy, you’ll want to be judicious about who you tell and why.

“We don’t want a child to be perceived as someone who can’t cope, who can’t handle things,” Dr. Prieur says. “We don’t want them to think, ‘There’s something wrong with me.’”

Find Out What Services Your School Offers

You don’t have to disclose anything about your child’s health to find out if your school has resources that might help. Does your school have a psychologist or counselor? Is there a policy for children who have to miss school for mental health treatment? You can check the student or parent handbook or ask the administration for information without providing personal details about your child. This information can help you determine how to proceed with sharing your child’s diagnosis.

Ask Your Child or Teen if They Want to Share Their Diagnosis

Asking what the student wants to share may be important, depending on the student and their relationship with their teachers. Asking permission to share may be especially important for teens.

“If you ask permission to share, then you have to respect their choice,” Dr. Prieur says. “It can be an interesting discussion, a chance to talk about how they are feeling and whether they think the school can help, or if they will be treated differently if others know they have a mental health disorder.”

Another option is to teach teens and children how to advocate for themselves in school. Maybe there is a particular teacher, coach or counselor they can talk with confidentially. Everyone doesn’t have to know.

“Many teachers have more experience helping students who have these diagnoses than parents do,” Dr. Prieur says. “They have experience with various coping strategies, such as mindfulness, and can teach them to their students.”

Communicate with Your Child’s Teacher

Parents no longer have to rely on setting up a face-to-face meeting with a child’s teacher or finding a time to speak on the phone. Teachers and parents often communicate through email or school apps that may also give parents and students access to assignments, due dates and information about upcoming events. Report cards may include comments from the teacher about your child’s social and emotional development in addition to their grades.

Use these resources to partner with your child’s teachers whenever you can.

“It can be very useful to have conversations with your child’s teachers,” Dr. Prieur says. “Many days, they see your child more than you do. Their insights can be invaluable.”

If a teacher shares concerns about your child, try not to be defensive.

“Even if you think the behavior they’re describing doesn’t sound like your child, don’t shut them down,” she says. “You can say something like, ‘I appreciate your telling me that. What else have you observed?’ Then you can share what you’ve seen at home.”

Parents may want to let teachers know if their child is going through something that could affect the way they behave or perform at school. For example, one child became anxious after she and her family were in a car wreck. She wanted to sit at the back of the class, where she felt safer.

“The teacher encouraged the child to share with him what was going on,” Dr. Prieur says. “Then he asked the child if he could talk with her mother.”

Other teachers will go directly to the parent if they sense something is wrong. But don’t wait for the teacher to reach out to you, she says.

“Post-pandemic, there are a lot of kids with increased levels of depression and anxiety,” she says. “Many have missed not just academic development but also social and emotional growth. With so much going on, the teacher may not observe the problems your child is having. It may be helpful if you let the teacher know what you are aware of.”

Share Information About Learning Disabilities or Differences

Disorders that can affect how a child learns, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder, need to be shared with teachers.

“When there’s a learning disability, then the earlier we can intervene, the better,” Dr. Prieur says. “If a child gets behind, that just makes the problem worse. There are resources parents may not know about, but the school will.”

Schools may offer programs to help children succeed in the classroom, such as behavioral classroom management or organizational training. Federally funded special education services and accommodations are available if the student meets certain criteria. These programs include Individualized Education Program plans (IEPs) and 504 plans for students who need special support, instruction or accommodations.

“Many times, a child’s ADHD assessment comes with a report for the school, which is used to see what services and accommodations the child qualifies for and could benefit from,” Dr. Prieur says.

Check Out Available Resources Outside of School

If your child needs treatment for mental health issues, including depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, the school may not have enough resources to help. Talk with your pediatrician or family doctor, or with a mental health professional.

“Many pediatricians now routinely screen patients for anxiety and depression,” Dr. Prieur says. “Wellness includes mental as well as physical health. Normalizing these diagnoses can help students get the support they need.”

Support may include talk therapy, prescription medication or a combination of both.

“Kids might be embarrassed to talk about how they’re feeling,” Dr. Prieur says. “We want them to understand there’s nothing wrong with them. And there are resources to help.”

If your child is struggling in school academically, socially or otherwise, talk to their doctor. If you need a doctor, find one near you.