Managing school demands – from classwork and tests to social interactions and extracurricular activities – can feel challenging for any child from time to time. However, for children dealing with anxiety, depression or other mental health concerns, just getting through a school day can feel overwhelming.
"Children who are dealing with anxiety or depression may start refusing to go to school or say they have a headache or a stomach ache," explains Talia Fayson, M.Ed., School Services Case Manager at Children's Health℠. "Or when they go to school, they may frequently go to the nurse or the counselor's office complaining of physical sicknesses or panic attack symptoms."
While parents of children with physical health conditions may be aware that they can request school accommodations, parents of children with mental health conditions may not know that they can take actions to support their child at school. Fayson explains different accommodations for mental health conditions and ways to help.
How do I know if my child is dealing with anxiety or depression?
Parents should be aware of sudden changes in their child’s behavior or mood – including loss of interest in activities, angry outbursts, shifts in appetite or slipping grades. These could be signs of depression or anxiety.
How can anxiety or depression affect school performance?
Students dealing with anxiety or depression may find it difficult to concentrate in class. Interacting with their teachers or peers may also feel challenging. Sometimes kids will suddenly start to get in trouble or cause disruptions in class, too.
"Parents may notice their child is suddenly withdrawing from extracurricular activities or they have missing or incomplete assignments. Their motivation suddenly gets lower and lower, and they may start having behavioral issues in class," Fayson says.
What can parents do to help students with mental health conditions in school?
If you believe your child is struggling with anxiety or depression, talk to their school counselor or social worker. These school personnel can serve as a frontline resource to help direct you to mental health providers in your area who can offer treatment or counseling for your child. Plus, school counselors can assist families in identifying and setting up accommodations, such as 504 plans, to help children with anxiety or depression manage their school day more successfully.
What is a 504 plan?
A 504 plan is a plan created for a child identified with a disability that ensures they receive accommodations to be successful at school. Students with either physical or mental health conditions – including anxiety or depression – are eligible to develop a formalized 504 plan with their school system. A 504 plan outlines specific at‑school accommodations that can support their academic success.
All schools that receive federal funding are required to provide 504 plan accommodations if children have a demonstrated need for them.
When working with children who are dealing with anxiety and depression, Fayson has found 504 plans that accommodate extra time and quiet testing space help students more easily and successfully navigate their school day.
Accommodations for students with anxiety and depression may include:
- Providing a designated calm-down area when the class environment is too overwhelming
- Identifying a specific support person at school (such as a counselor) available for check-ins as needed
- Incorporating scheduled and as-needed breaks throughout the day
- Allowing for preferential seating in an area that’s comfortable for the student
- Providing a permanent hall pass to use as needed for visits with the school’s counselor, social worker or other administrators
- Creating a plan to help the student make up work when they are absent
- Allowing the student to leave class five minutes before the bell to give extra transition time and to miss crowds
- Letting the student "chunk" large assignments into smaller blocks to be more manageable
- Allowing extra time to complete tests, quizzes, projects, homework, etc.
- Recording class lectures and assistance with notetaking
- Setting up other accommodations as identified by the school counselor and social worker upon evaluation of the student’s individual needs
Why should I inform my child’s school about their mental health?
Sometimes, parents may feel reluctant to share details about their child's struggles with anxiety or depression with teachers or other school administrators. This could be for fears of "labeling them" with a mental health disorder or the stigma that can be attached to mental health.
Fayson hears this often, but she encourages families to avoid this line of thought. "I always tell parents to share as much as you're comfortable sharing," she says. "Parents should consider the advantages of informing the school so they can work together to help their child navigate potential school‑day stressors successfully."
What else can I do to help my child with anxiety or depression succeed at school?
While working with teachers and administrators to integrate 504 plan accommodations, parents should keep careful documentation of all conversations and email correspondence. These records could provide important details if you need to reference them later – especially if you ever feel your child’s mental health needs are not being met at school.
If you have specific concerns, Fayson advises following an appropriate "chain of command" – first talking with your child’s teacher and counselor before jumping right into complaints to the principal.
Finally, parents should make time to revisit their student's 504 plan annually with the school counselor and other key staff. "It's important to have a dialog so you can say, 'Yes, these things worked, let's continue them.' Or to be able to make changes or additions to accommodations if necessary," Fayson says.
Children's Health can help children and teens manage feelings of depression and anxiety. Learn more about programs we offer to support mental, emotional and behavioral health. You can also learn more about our school services team and see additional education resources for families.
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