Six Steps to Support Child with Mental Illness Disability at School

If your child’s disability is a form of mental illness, your school may or may not be prepared to cope. Here are some issues to watch out for.


1. The school may not want to evaluate your child. School personnel may or may not understand that mental illness can be a disability under IDEA. You may need to push hard for an initial evaluation under IDEA. Even if an initial evaluation is granted, some school districts only utilize learning disability psychometrics and these do not assess or identify Emotional and Behavior Disorder (EBD) type clinical syndrome. Be sure to document all your requests.

2. The school’s personnel may not be qualified to evaluate your child. School personnel have a lot of experience with certain disabilities, but not with all disabilities. Mental illness can be complex and challenging. Under IDEA, you are entitled to full information about an evaluation. This includes the credentials of the evaluators and what tests will be given to your child, including what that test is assessing. Ask for this in writing.

3. Consider supplementing the evaluation of your child with a true expert report. Under IDEA, parents can get additional testing or expert opinions for the team that is evaluating their child or designing the IEP to consider. One good way to do this is to provide a report. An even better way is to have the expert attend the IEP meeting. If you have a report from a highly-qualified expert, that will go a long way if you have to challenge the school’s decision. Sometimes parents say that they want to wait and ask for an independent evaluation at the school’s expense. You have the right to do that. But the school may not agree to fund it, and you will still be coming in with a rebuttal evaluation, rather than being part of the initial process. One option is to inquire of your medical insurance if the evaluation procedure, done by a licensed psychologist, would be covered.

4. Does the school understand your child’s triggers and limitations? For a child with a mental illness, this can be a very serious issue indeed. If the school puts your child in an environment where he or she cannot cope, the child may fall apart. And unlike a neurotypical child, who will probably recover pretty well, the child with a mental illness may have some kind of break or downward spiral. For the child with a mental illness, you may need to work very hard to make sure the school understands—perhaps in writing, from a healthcare provider —what the child can or cannot handle. The doctoral level psychologist, such as an educational psychologist, school psychologist, or child clinical psychologist, can provide a specific individual treatment plan integrated into the individual education plan.

5. What if school administrators want to interview your child? If there is any possibility at all of behavioral issues with your child, consider this issue carefully. Is your child suggestible or fragile? What will happen if an adult gets him or her alone in a room and puts on pressure for the child to admit to something—perhaps that he doesn’t have a disability or that she committed a criminal offense? What if an administrator interviewed your child with a school resource officer sitting there, as a way of avoiding Miranda limitations. Your child with a mental illness may need additional protection. You can file a letter with the school stating that administration may not interview your child without parental permission, especially if your care provider believes that is an appropriate part of the child’s safety plan. It may not stop the interview from happening, but if there is a dispute, it helps establish your position. Depending on the situation, you may want to consider retaining a child advocate to be present during the administrative interview, clinical interview, or evaluation of your child.

6. Does your child with a mental illness have a safety plan? If your medical or psychological provider has helped develop a safety plan, the school has an obligation under Section 504 to consider the plan seriously and perhaps implement it. Consider having a formal safety plan for your child. With a safety plan in place, inquire of each teacher if s/he is fully engaged in implementing the safety plan.

About the Author

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations