Living with a mental illness can be tough enough when you’re an adult. As a child, the experience can be filled with uncertainty and confusion. They’re going through the growth and self-discovery that other kids are, with the added challenges of their neuroatypical condition. This is why it is so important that they have the best possible support from both parents and teachers through their formative years.
Yet, this in itself can pose difficulties. There is still a great deal of misinformation surrounding mental health. Any parent of a child with a mental illness can likely tell you that half the battle is finding reliable information about the condition and catering methods toward their individual needs. Similarly, teachers know that there is difficulty in making certain their students have the right access to supportive services and providing them with a good educational experience. As such, one of the ways to make a positive impact on a child’s mental health is for parents and teachers to collaborate closely.
This isn’t always a straightforward goal to achieve from either perspective. So, let’s take a look at some of the key points you can focus on, whether you are a teacher or a parent.
Learn from Each Other
The first thing to understand is that parents and teachers each have perspectives of how a child can coexist with a mental illness. Neither has anything but the child’s best interests at heart. Therefore, each needs to recognize that there will be insights into addressing the challenges that the other will not immediately have access to. This means that parents and teachers need to make continued and concerted efforts to learn from one another.
Parents may well be more adept at giving insights into what symptom management methods are best for their child. Several common activities are known to help reduce stress and anxiety. Focused breathing techniques can be effective in tense situations, and regular exercise can leave the child less stressed. Attention to practicing mindfulness can also shift thoughts to the present moment and prevent the child from becoming overwhelmed by the big picture. Many of these can be practiced both in and out of school, but a parent is most likely to be able to guide teachers on which is more effective for the child in specific situations, from experience.
On the other hand, teachers are usually better placed than parents to understand the various environments of the educational experience, and how certain elements are affecting the child in question. What triggers symptoms at home may be vastly different from situations that appear to be challenging for the child at school. Parents need to learn from the additional information that teachers can provide. By working together, both parties can provide more comprehensive support.
Commit to Communication
Too many mistakes occur when there’s a culture of silence between parents and teachers. Aside from anything else, it gives space for assumptions to occur. When parents don’t hear from teachers, there’s the assumption that everything is going fine in the classroom. When teachers don’t hear from parents, there can be the expectation that perhaps the challenges are less present at home. This leaves a lot of space for difficulties to go unnoticed and kids who are vulnerable in perhaps subtle ways to fall through the cracks. As such, to have the most positive impact on students’ mental health, there needs to be a commitment to regular communication on both sides.
This doesn’t mean that you need to have daily phone calls to be effective. Let’s face it, teachers have enough administrative burden to deal with in the current educational landscape, and for parents, this can be a little overbearing — it’s also largely unnecessary. However, it can be wise to formalize the methods of communication for when either party wants to have a meeting. Making it clear that there is space to talk can help both parties feel more open to doing so. Establish plans to check in during times that may be particularly stressful for the student, or after activities that you both know can be anxiety-inducing or triggering for the student.
Provide Actionable Guidance
Teachers and parents both have a duty of care to children experiencing mental illness. However, alongside the emotional side of this, it’s important to be practical. Children need comfort and support, but they can also benefit when they are provided with clear plans that can help them to move forward and be active in the direction of their lives.
For younger children, this may involve making them aware of what the processes in school are for when they’re finding aspects challenging. This might be identifying key figures of support staff, and establishing how they can use them in a way that is most comfortable for them. For those with neurodivergent traits, where they can find external stimuli overwhelming at times, it could be helpful to show them how to access safe spaces to decompress wherever they happen to be.
When it comes to teenagers, especially those who may be graduating soon, it is wise to help direct them toward resources. The prospect of entering the adult world can be anxiety-inducing enough, but you can help them to recognize that there are sources of support should they need them. Introduce them to the resources for mental health financial assistance that might be available to them. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is available to those experiencing a range of mental health and neurocognitive conditions. Free clinics and sliding scale therapy programs can be especially useful for when they’re heading off to college and have limited finances at their disposal.
Keep the Child Involved
Whether you’re a teacher or a parent, you must remember not to make children passive subjects of your measures. They are likely to be living with their mental or neurological health for the rest of their lives, and it’s important to both their wellbeing and self-esteem that they can gain ownership of their neurology. As such, there needs to be a focus on keeping children involved with your planning and strategies throughout their formative years.
We’ve touched on the importance of teachers and parents learning from one another. Well, both should also be open to learning from the child. Even from an early age, they’re likely to have more nuanced insights into what their personal challenges are, how symptoms present, and what does or does not work for them. Part of this process is establishing ways for them to communicate this effectively; if a verbal description is problematic for your child, perhaps try encouraging them to write a diary or letter.
Above all else, this should be treated as an invitation to be involved rather than a subject of scrutiny. Empowering them to be their own best arbiter of their mental condition will be useful now and as they develop toward adulthood.
Children who live with mental health challenges can have a difficult time both in and out of school. As such, parents and teachers can have the most positive impact by creating an open and communicative collaboration. Most importantly, keeping the child involved at all stages and soliciting their active participation can ensure they are empowered to develop in positive directions.
Bio: Jori Hamilton is an experienced writer residing in the Northwestern U.S. She covers a wide range of topics but takes a particular interest in covering topics related to education, business productivity, and sustainability. To learn more about Jori, you can follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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