10 ways to Make the Back to School Transition as Painless as Possible for Children with Mental Health Challenges

The back to school season can be both exciting and nerve-wracking for most kids, however, for those living with mental health challenges the typical worries surrounding a new school year can be especially pronounced. Fears about new teachers, foreign classrooms, and classmates can make this transition difficult particularly for children who have had less than positive school experiences in years past. Further, changes in sleep schedules and routine may fall especially hard on children with mental health conditions placing them at high risk for a rough start to the school year right off the bat. Still, there are a number of steps that parents and teachers can take to make the first days of school a little easier.


1. Check Out the New Digs

Class orientations and preview visits are a fun way to give kids an idea of what the class may be like ahead of time. For youth with mental health challenges, this sort of “heads up” can be key in relieving anxiety.


2. Seek Out a Buddy

For some kids, having a “buddy” or another student assigned to check in with and provide a friend to the student with a mental health condition may give a sense of alliance. This can be as informal as asking an older sibling to check in during the day or parents can also request a buddy from the teacher. Students who are new to a school may make especially good buddies as both kids will benefit from having a friend from the first day of class.


3. Catch the New Teach Up to Speed

A quick phone call or note from parents to the teacher early in the year before any kind of problems have come up may set the tone for good communication between both and ensure that teachers are aware of a child’s needs and any accommodations that are in place.


4. Start Switching Up Sleep Schedules Early and Slowly

Sleep issues are common among youth living with mental health conditions. Summer schedules can turn these kids into nocturnal creatures! When kids become used to sleeping well into the day and falling asleep late at night it can take a lot of struggle to bring them back into a normal sleep schedule. Starting changes in sleep schedule early and moving a child slowly into an appropriate sleep schedule for school may be more successful than waiting until the night before the first day of school to work on this.


5. Write a Story

Writing a story about what will happen of the first day of school may help some kids to fight off anxiety. For younger kids, this can be a small picture book drawn by hand or on a computer. For older kids and teenagers this could also take the form of a conversation with family about what to expect or a small comic drawing. The story should include factual information such as who the new teacher will be and what classroom the kid will be in for the year. It should also include some piece about problems that could come up, such as difficulties with a locker combination, and a way that that problem can be solved.


6. Bring Something

For younger kids, having an object from home such as a stuffed animal or even a water bottle with them in the classroom may be comforting and add a little familiarity to an unsettling situation.. Parents may want to check with the teachers first to make sure that bringing such an item will be okay and that the item will not be removed from the child.


7. Offer a Ride

Bus rides can be prime times for bullying and behavior issues especially for kids who already are dealing with identified challenges. During the first few days of school, driving the child to and from school may make the first days less demanding and avoid potential problems. Beginning a carpooling initiative with other neighborhood families can provide some of the same social opportunities as riding the bus in a little bit of a safer environment.


8. Mark Out a Hide Out

For kids with mental health challenges, school itself can sometimes be overwhelming. Having some kind of hide out or sanctuary where the child can go when overwhelmed or when feeling intense such as the nurse’s office, the library, or a place in the hallway may give an “out” and prevent youth from melting down in front of their peers. Having this place marked out ahead of time and having a plan in place can ensure that this resource is available and give a sense of safety.


9. Talk about the Good Things

When thinking about the new school year, many kids who deal with mental health issues will focus on the negatives. They may worry about a class or classmate they particularly dislike or think about bad memories from previous school years. Having conversations where some positive aspects of school are brought up may help remind kids of aspects of school that they do enjoy and lead to less resistance regarding the idea of school.


10. Make a Plan for Bad Days

All kids, well, all people, have bad days sometimes. Still, for youth living with a mental health condition a bad day may mean a rage, panic attack, or other kind of meltdown if not handled well. Having a plan in place ahead of time for these high risk days that both the child, teacher, and other school staff are aware of may be particularly helpful in avoiding those kind of outcomes. This plan may include elements such as allowing the child to leave the classroom to a safe place, decreasing the level of demands for the child on that day, having someone in the school that the child can go to talk to, or having something available to the child such as headphones for music or a game that will help them calm down.


Everyday is Mental Health Awareness Day in Some Homes

A good deal of you probably know that May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Over this month I have seen a lot of support on the virtual side for mental health. Some of these have been as simple as a green ribbon, while others as elaborate as stories individuals have been willing to share. Still, the one piece that has stuck most with me was a FaceBook meme that said this;

“May is Mental Health Awareness Month: Every Day is Mental Health Awareness Day at Our Home.”

For every number or statistic thrown out, and every newspaper article or story written warning of what is now said to be 1 in 4 individuals affected by mental illness there is a person. These individuals are friends, neighbors, church members, and students. They have dreams, loves, challenges and also families, each of which can be impacted by the catastrophic effects of mental illness. The numbers don’t talk about that.

When mental illnesses hit home everyone is stuck. Husbands, wives, brothers and sisters can feel overpowered watching as the person they have come to know so well struggles against these serious health challenges. Parents and guardians especially can feel alone and confused wondering if their child with a mental health disability will be able to lead a “normal” life.

It’s not all darkness. Mental illnesses like depression and bipolar have long been associated with creativity, innovation, and even intelligence. Many great artists, leaders, writers, and actors/actresses have faced mental illnesses including Vincent Van Gogh, Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Hemmingway, and Robbie Williams. Just to name a few.

Still, individuals with mental health conditions often need help to combat their symptoms, realize/utilize their strengths, and to navigate in a world not designed for those living with mental illnesses. With intervention, a number of individuals with mental health conditions have been able to recover and that number is growing stronger each day. New discoveries are allowing individuals to fight off what were once life-controlling symptoms and many are able to lead typical, meaningful lives despite having a mental illness. This said, access to these treatments remains a struggle as waitlists for help are often long and capturing quality care sometimes seems to require super-human strength.

So as we celebrate mental health awareness month please keep these things in mind. Mental illness is a challenge. It is not a person. It does not define a person. A person can have a mental illness, it does have to ‘have’ them. Families and individuals affected by mental health conditions often need support and education on what can be most helpful in dealing with associated challenges as a family. Further with an imperfect mental health system, families often need advocacy and good direction in seeking out appropriate treatments and other supports. NAMI does this. Through classes like family-to-family, support groups, and advocacy NAMI is helping families to deal with the catastrophic effects of mental illnesses. In addition, through systems advocacy and educational program NAMI is helping to create a meaningful difference in the way families affected are met within the system of care.