It is well-documented that children’s mental and behavioral health needs have profound effects on their learning and academic performance. Identifying and addressing these needs is critical both to a student’s individual success and to the success of a school as a whole.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five children shows symptoms of a mental health disorder in a given year. Such disorders in children are described as serious changes in the way they typically learn, behave, or handle their emotions that cause distress and problems getting through the day.
Emotional and behavioral problems are among the most prevalent chronic health conditions of childhood, according to the National Health Statistics Report called Identifying Emotional and Behavioral Problems in Children Aged 4-17 Years: United States 2001-2007. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and behavior disorders are the more common ones diagnosed in childhood. Others include oppositional defiant disorder, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder.
Sometimes parents and youth are afraid to share their concerns about such issues, but early diagnosis, intervention, and prompt treatment are critical to improving mental and behavioral health, supporting healthy development and academic success, and identifying effective behavioral management skills.
The most successful strategies for addressing a child’s needs in school are to provide clinical knowledge and services directly to the child in school, while providing consultation, training, and intervention support to educators. This alone, however, is not sufficient to effectively address the individual needs of children.
Schools must also have effective policies and procedures in place to ensure that children identified as needing behavioral health services are also considered for possible eligibility for special education and essential accommodations in school.
Too often, we see children who were properly referred to Community Behavioral Health for services, but were never identified as needing special education services or evaluated for accommodations through a 504 plan despite their eligibility. Yet the programming, supports, and services available through these legally mandated entitlements are precisely what will support a child to learn and thrive in school.
Without them, a child may continue to struggle academically and socially, is more likely to be chronically absent, and is far more likely to be subject to disciplinary exclusion, such as suspension.
Although only a small percentage of children with behavioral health needs may be eligible for special education services – and schools must be careful not to over-identify students either – a high percentage of these children will qualify for and greatly benefit from having accommodations or a 504 plan in school.
Special education services are appropriate when a child needs specially designed instruction to learn. In contrast, a 504 plan should be considered anytime a child’s behavior interferes with a major life activity that affects the child in a school setting, such as focusing in class, socializing with peers, changing classrooms, taking tests, or attending school.
For example, a child with ADHD may need specific interventions to ensure that he focuses in class. A child with anxiety may need extra time on tests or a separate classroom. And a youth suffering from depression may need accommodations to address memory issues and processing speed.
Once students’ needs are identified, they may not be punished for any misbehavior that is common in those who have their mental or behavioral health condition. Many resources are available through organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Psychiatry to help parents, students, educators, and school staff develop effective 504 plans.
The number of children with mental and behavioral health needs has grown in recent years, requiring expanded clinical services in schools, increased teacher training, and more services and supports. However, the continued underfunding of schools has reduced the number of counselors, social workers and psychologists in schools who are available to address the mental, emotional and behavioral needs of children.
Accordingly, the inadequate funding of Philadelphia’s schools is a particular barrier to success for these vulnerable students.
Maura McInerney is senior attorney at the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania.