School Issues for Bipolar Children
Bipolar children face certain issues and challenges at school. Find out what accommodations are mandated by law for young bipolar children and bipolar teens in the classroom.
By Susan L Sullivan
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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School can be stressful for all children, but for children and teens with bipolar disorder, the stresses of the educational process can be overwhelming. The challenges that bipolar children face on a daily basis contribute to their risk for school failure. Bipolar children may be sleepy from medications, have difficulty concentrating or making transitions, or have other learning disabilities.
Young bipolar children and bipolar teens are protected by two federal laws. First, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires schools to identify students with special needs and provide needed educational service from K–12 until age 22. Next, under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, schools must make necessary academic adjustments for students with learning impairments. Additionally, individual states have various laws regarding what school systems need to do to fulfill bipolar children’s requirements for educational assistance.
When applying the intent of these laws, schools and parents need to realize that every child is unique. “There are some more common approaches that can be used in an education setting,” says Nanci Schiman, MSW, program director of the Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation in Evanston, Ill. “But flexibility and open communication are key in managing the bipolar child.”
Just as each student responds somewhat differently to teaching methods and styles, the same is true for a child with bipolar disorder. Some of the more common accommodations that a school can make include:
- Extending time to take tests
- Reducing homework and allowing flexible due dates
- Providing the student with a place to go to regain composure or take a break
- Allowing unlimited access to water (important for children taking certain medications) and unrestricted bathroom breaks
- Alerting the child and parents if there will be unexpected changes in a school day’s routine (for example, a substitute teacher, fire drill, field trip, or upcoming test)
Schools need to be proactive in anticipating issues that may arise as a result of unresolved problems that the bipolar child is experiencing. If the child is socially isolated or shy, teachers should take steps to prevent any bullying or teasing from the other students. The school staff can also foster a more positive environment by being patient and ignoring minor negative behaviors while encouraging positive ones. Teachers should also stay calm during difficult situations and be a model of desired behavior.
Disciplining the Bipolar Child
Schools are also governed by laws such as IDEA and Section 504 when it comes to disciplining students with bipolar disorder. “It’s important to look not just at the behavior but at the circumstances behind the behavior, the environment in which the problem occurred, and the events leading up to the undesirable behavior,” says Schiman. “Often, problematic behavior occurs when a child does not have the appropriate tools to cope with a situation.”
For example, a bipolar child may be emotionally immature or have problems with impulsivity, anger, mania, or depression. Other times a child may be trying to save face in front of peers so as not to cry, scream, or act in some socially unacceptable way. The more that the school staff can work to address behavioral problems by looking at the root cause, the better the chance the child will replace these behaviors with more appropriate responses.
How Parents Can Help the Education Process
“Parents need to be advocates for their children,” says Schiman. It is helpful for parents to learn about their child’s disorder, know their child’s educational rights, and communicate regularly with school staff in a non-adversarial way to foster collaboration for what is best for the child. Parents can also help the staff to understand the disorder, what works best for their child, changes in medications, or behavioral strategies that work at home. Schiman adds that open communication is the key.
“Human beings are manipulative by nature, and we manipulate our environment to adapt to ever-changing situations,” says Schiman. “A child with bipolar disorder will manipulate the environment based on what skills they have.” A bipolar child’s intent is not to cause trouble, but rather to cope with a situation that causes him stress or anxiety. By understanding the challenges presented by bipolar disorder, and accommodating the child’s needs as necessary, both parents and teachers can give the child a road map to success at school.
Video: Which children are at risk for bipolar disorder?
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