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Should parents involve schools in a child's mental health struggles?

When to Tell The School about Mental, Emotional Health

When it comes to a child’s mental health or emotional health struggles, it’s imperative that they get as much support as possible. But it’s not always clear if, when and how to involve children’s biggest influencers outside of parents: the school.

It’s a tricky situation. Indian society at large isn’t yet used to having open discussions about children’s mental health. This is compounded by a lack of language or expectations about how parents and schools can work together to create a supportive environment in general, even outside of particularly trying circumstances. It’s difficult to have a conversation when both sides lack the words, and when a child is poised to be caught in the middle, it can make even the attempt complicated.

A client’s parents once made the decision to tell their daughter’s teachers she was taking depression medication, only to become distraught when the information they had provided to the school was spread to all teachers (even those who didn’t teach her) and even some parents.

Parents of my clients routinely worry whether confiding their child’s mental health or emotional health struggles to the school will make him or her more vulnerable to humiliation and discrimination, perhaps through lower marks, being singled out in the class, or as grist for staff-room gossip. These are very real concerns that can make it difficult to know when to consult your child’s school. Yet schools remain a very important partner in helping your child overcome his or her challenges.

When to speak to a school about your child’s mental health struggles

Two good measures of when to confide in the school and join forces in helping your child is (a) if there’s violence — such as physical abuse or vandalised belongings — involved, or (b) whether or not your child’s struggles in one realm are affecting another. The reality is problems at home often manifest in children’s behaviour at schools and challenges children face at school start showing up in their behaviour at home.

The school should also be informed in all cases where violence (such as stolen or vandalized belongings or physical abuse) is the catalyst for the child’s mental health or emotional health struggles.

Sometimes a child’s mental health or emotional health struggles that affect children’s emotional or mental well-being originate at school and bleed over into behaviour at home. These instances could be due to, say, severe bullying by a classmate or discrimination from a teacher. Because the source of these problems is within the school environment, they can’t be resolved without action from teachers and administrators.

Other, more personal emotional or mental health struggles might be rooted outside of school, but can affect behaviour or performance in the classroom. The causes could range from the death of a loved one or parents’ divorce, to a physical or mental illness that requires therapy or medication. These are difficult and sensitive challenges for kids to deal with – all the more reason, in an ideal world, to have the place where they spend six to eight hours every day supporting them.

However, we don’t live in a perfect world. But much can be mitigated by how we approach schools for help.

How to speak to a school about your child’s struggles

Set up a meeting.

Topics like these, particularly when children are involved, are best discussed in person to avoid misunderstanding. And be sure to follow the school’s protocol: For example, if the school prefers to have an administrator or counselor present at the meeting along with the classroom teacher, accept that the school sees these people as integral to helping your child; or, if the school asks for a written communication, be sure to provide one.

Also, ask about the school’s rules around confidentiality and how it will ensure the information you share will be kept private.

Narrate your child’s mental health or emotional health struggles; don’t react to them.

Dwelling on your (very understandable) reactions can sidetrack the issue. Give facts, describe situations, and provide examples of how your child has been impacted. (If applicable – as in the case of, say, teacher discrimination — give the school a chance to present their version of the story and hear them out.)

Convey what steps you have taken at home to address the challenge.

By talking about your own actions to help your child, you can create a sense of teamwork. It also keeps the school and parents on the same page, which means the school knows what to reinforce or avoid with your child.

Discuss actions the school can take to support your child’s mental health or emotional health.

Outline how you feel that the school’s intervention can aid your child. Offer suggestions and feel free to make requests, but try to avoid telling the school what to do. (Consider bringing a letter from the health care professional treating your child.)

If relevant, work with the teacher / administrator to create a list of scenarios, school actions, and a timeline so everyone knows what their role is and what to expect.

Keep the communication lines open.

Always focus on how you are available and open to feedback when it comes to your child’s mental health, emotional health, and overall well-being. Schools may have valuable insights that can guide parents in helping the child at home, and vice versa. Consider setting a follow-up meeting to discuss it further and evaluate what supportive actions have been effective.

The parents of an 8-year-old client followed these steps recently. The boy, grieving the loss of his grandmother, was having crying spells at home, becoming socially withdrawn and showing a low attention span at school. I suggested to the parent that they inform the school, which enabled the teacher to speak to the class about grief as well as offer greater sensitivity, understanding to the boy.

In time, the teacher became an important part of healing, gently nudging the child to participate and telling him she was happy to talk whenever he felt the need. When schools and parents work together, the positive impact on a child can be enormous.

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