New School Year, New Opportunities

Helping kids with mental health challenges transition back to school

Posted Sep 05, 2014

For many parents, back to school time means a return to routine and a chance to take a break from the challenges of parenting all day, every day. Children often see the return to school as a chance to make a fresh start and make new friends. For children with mental health challenges such as ADHD, learning disorders, and depression, though, transitions are difficult. The transition back to school can be particularly challenging, since children with mental health concerns may struggle to make friends, find themselves frequently in trouble with teachers, and be plagued by feelings of not fitting in. There are a number of things parents can do to help their children make a healthy transition back to school.

The Unique Challenges of College Students

College students with mental illnesses can face a number of difficulties, from getting educational accommodations to accessing affordable, high-quality mental health care. The transition to college requires some planning, but if you're overwhelmed by the process of getting your child ready, there are a number of organizations that can help. Most notable is Transition Year, which helps college students develop a comprehensive plan or the transition to college, while offering them access to and information about resources of which they might not otherwise be aware.

Establishing a Routine

No matter how old your child is or what mental health issues she struggles with, a routine is a must for ensuring her mental health. There's no “right” routine for back to school time. Instead, you have to find something that works for your family. The hallmarks of a good routine include:

• More than enough time to do everything you need to, from getting dressed in the morning to doing homework at night. A built-in time cushion will ensure that, even if something takes longer than planned, neither you nor your child have to panic.

• Leaving micromanagement behind. While you should oversee your children's morning activities, so long as they complete all their tasks, you don't need to dictate how the tasks are completed.

• Input from the entire family. A routine works best when it's something you all agree to, not something the adults impose on the children. You might be surprised to hear the good suggestions your children can offer.

• Help your child understand time management by encouraging her to make weekly task lists. Try also giving her daily countdowns – 10 minutes, 5 minutes, and 1 minute until you have to leave, for example.

Heading Off Problems

If you want to know what challenges your child might face this year, your best guide is the previous year. A child who struggled in math last year or who couldn't concentrate in class will likely face the same issues this year. Rather than hoping a new school year will wipe the record clean, work to combat problems before they start. Some steps you can take include:

• Talking to your child and directly asking him what he needs to do better this year.

• Letting your child's teacher know about any learning disabilities he has or accommodations he needs. This saves your child the embarrassment of spending the first few days failing until his teacher realizes he needs extra assistance.

• Pursuing an Individualized Education Plan, which is the right of every child with a mental health or learning disability. Such a plan outlines specific methods designed to help your child learn, and includes the accommodations—such as additional test-taking time or a note-taker—to which your child is entitled.

Psychiatric Tune-Ups

Mental health is exactly like physical health. You can't just “set” your child's brain with medication and then forget about it. Children with mental health challenges need regular mental health check-ups. Schedule an appointment with your child's psychiatrist or therapist for early in the school year. It could be time to switch medications, try a new drug, or even wean your child off of medications altogether, but the only way to know is to talk to a mental health professional. Be sure to take a list of questions, and to encourage your child to share her thoughts. Children who participate in their own medical care are more likely to comply with the treatment plan. They also grow into adults who are excellent advocates for their own mental health needs.

The Right Health Choices

Your child's mental health can be directly affected by the quality of his physical health. Summer time often means snacks on the go and slacking off on healthy lifestyle choices. Now's the time to get back on track with the following suggestions:

• Ensure your child is getting enough sleep. Children need anywhere from eight to 12 hours of sleep per night depending on age and individual factors. Waking your child up at the same time each day can make it easier for her to fall asleep at night. If your child struggles with sleep disturbances, talk to her doctor. For periodic insomnia, a dose of Benadryl can help your child feel groggy, but should not be used on a nightly basis.

• Focus on a healthy diet. You don't have to eliminate sweets or every unhealthy food. In fact, trying to exert too much control over your child's diet can backfire. Instead, aim for balance over time, and steer clear of unhealthy practices such as eating in front of the television or bribing your child with sweets. Foods such as nuts, avocados, and dark chocolate are particularly helpful for ensuring good mental health.

• Maintain an active lifestyle. Exercise can help combat a host of mental health challenges. It will also help use up your child's energy so that she's better able to concentrate in school. Exercise shouldn't be a scheduled, structured thing, and children should never be told they should lose weight. Instead, make exercise fun by encouraging your child to participate in sports, doing a nightly activity such as roller skating, or spending your weekends hiking or fishing with your child.

Listening to Your Child

Your child is often the best source of information about her own mental health, so don't forget to ask lots of questions and listen carefully to the answers—even when the answers make you uncomfortable or angry. Children whose parents listen to them are more likely to talk to them about problems such as bullying or learning difficulties. Rather than asking your child how her day was, try asking open-ended questions such as:

• What were the best and worst things about school today?

• How does your ideal teacher act?

• Who is your best friend?

• Is there anyone at school you don't like? Why?

• What's most challenging about school for you?

• Is there anything I can do to make school easier or better for you?

• Is there anything I can do to be easier for you to talk to?

• What do you think of your therapist/psychiatrist?

• How do you feel about taking medication?

Heading back to school can be tough for children with mental illnesses, but anticipating and working to counteract problems before they occur can help you make this your child's best school year yet!

References:

Back to school. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/back-school

Diet and mental health. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/help-information/mental-health-a-z/D/diet/