School can be a challenge for students with mental health conditions. Some students struggle to concentrate, sit still or follow directions. Others might have difficulty learning due to depression, anxiety, mood swings, psychosis or behavior caused by trauma. For too many of our students, their symptoms result in discipline — such as out-of-school suspension — rather than support. To complicate the picture, many students with mental health conditions also have co-occurring learning disabilities.
There is hope for students with mental health needs as there are several ways to secure academic and behavioral support. The supports available in public schools include general education interventions, Section 504 plans and special education services. Which type of support is most appropriate for a student depends on that student’s unique strengths and needs.
General Education Interventions
General education interventions apply to many students, and depending on the state you live in, these supports may be referred to as Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), Response to Intervention (RtI) or other terms.
These supports can address academic or behavioral needs. Broad interventions, such as school-wide behavior plans, are put into place for all students. A school-wide behavior plan may provide for entire classrooms to receive positive rewards for following school-wide rules. Based on data collected by the MTSS or RtI team, more intensive supports can then be put in place for those students not having success with the school-wide interventions.
Students needing more intensive interventions may need individual behavior intervention plans (BIPs). A BIP may include ways to explicitly teach a student appropriate behaviors, individualized reinforcers and individualized responses to inappropriate behaviors. Data is then collected on the effectiveness of the intervention. If students continue to struggle, more intensive interventions are put in place, or they may be referred to the school’s Section 504 or special education (IEP) team.
Tips for securing effective general education interventions
Ask to see the data on how your student is doing with the school-wide academic or behavioral interventions put in place. If your student is struggling, ask for more intensive and individualized MTSS or RtI interventions.
Remember that any student can have a BIP if needed.
Ask to meet with your student’s MTSS or RtI team if you are concerned about your student’s progress.
Section 504 Supports
More formal general education supports exist under what is known as Section 504. Section 504 refers to a part of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and prohibits disability discrimination.
A Section 504 plan for a student most commonly consists of accommodations that a student needs. For example, a student with ADHD may need preferential seating away from distractions. A student with significant anxiety may benefit from staggered class transitions, so that he or she changes classes without many students in the hallway. Other accommodations may include extended time on classwork or assessments, a visual schedule or use of fidgets for students with hyperactivity.
Tips for securing effective Section 504 supports
In broad strokes, a student is eligible for a Section 504 plan if they have a disability that interferes with learning or another major life activity. Mental health conditions are recognized as disabilities under Section 504.
A parent can ask for a Section 504 eligibility or plan revision meeting at any point.
Be creative about what kind of accommodations may be helpful to your student! The school is not limited to using the most common accommodations. Think about what may help your student succeed, including what strategies have been helpful at home.
Special Education Supports
The most extensive supports for students are termed “special education.” Special education specifically refers to supports under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Like Section 504, the IDEA is a federal law; every state also has implementing regulations or policies.
Students receiving special education supports have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP lists a student’s strengths and needs, how a student is performing in each area of need (this includes academics as well as behavior), what accommodations a student needs to be successful (much like in a Section 504 plan), and what “specially designed instruction” a student needs.
Most commonly, specially designed instruction refers to instruction by a special educator to meet a student’s unique needs based on an IEP. This can occur in a variety of settings. It may look like a special education teacher joining a general education class to co-teach with a general education teacher. It may also look like a student receiving instruction from a special education teacher in a smaller group setting for part or all of the day. At its most restrictive, specially designed instruction may include instruction in hospitals, residential settings or at home.
Two key legal requirements of special education are that special education must: 1) offer students with disabilities a free, appropriate public education, meaning that a student should be making meaningful progress, and 2) be offered in the least restrictive environment, meaning that a student is learning with non-disabled peers as much as is appropriate. There are many other aspects of special education, including discipline protections.
Tips for securing effective special education supports
If you think your student needs an IEP, submit a written request for an IEP evaluation to the principal, include the date of the request and keep a copy for yourself.
Learn the IEP evaluation timelines in your state by searching for your state’s special education policies online.
If your child has an IEP but is still struggling, ask for an IEP review/revision meeting. A student with an IEP can also have a BIP. Any IEP/BIP review meeting should be scheduled at a time convenient for you to attend.
Note that during coronavirus-related virtual learning, public schools should still be providing the supports in a student’s IEP or Section 504 plan to the greatest extent possible.
For more information about school supports, you may contact your local school district or your state’s disability advocacy organization.
Cari Carson, Esq., MSW is a special education attorney-advocate in North Carolina. She is particularly passionate about improving outcomes for low-income students of color with disabilities and all students with mental health disabilities, in rural and urban areas. The information included here is not legal advice.