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Back to School: Changes and Challenges

by Teri Brister, Ph.D., director, NAMI Young Family Programs Back to School

Labor Day is nearly here, and with it comes the American back-to-school ritual. While the media uses images of smiling, happy youth, usually in groups, to portray this as an exciting time of year, the reality is that for many youth and their families, the anticipation of another school year can trigger anxiety and stress. These young people are not usually portrayed in the popular media. For them, back to school can bring the fear of meeting new teachers, concern about being able to fit into a classroom with a new group of kids, a possible change of classrooms and a variety of other adjustments that will result in a new routine. Seen through this lens, the back-to-school season can be intimidating for kids and their families.

Different Reactions to Change

NAMI has a variety of tools available to assist parents and other family caregivers navigate the challenges that can arise with a new school year. Some of those tools include:

A new school year brings change, and change can create stress. Stress is a natural part of life. For the majority of children and youth, this stress is fleeting and, after a few days, they successfully navigate the tasks before them. However this does not happen in every case.

On Jan. 3, 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General released a report stating that 12 percent of American children under the age of 18 live with a diagnosable mental illness. In any given year, only about 20 percent of the children and adolescents identified as having a mental illness receive any type of mental health treatment. Estimates are that one-half of all lifetime cases of mental disorders begin by age 14.

Not every child who experiences difficulties adjusting to the new school year will be diagnosed with a mental illness. A successful school year for these children depends largely on the ability of family caregivers and school personnel to recognize when a child’s reactions are no longer “normal” or “typical” and require attention. When, in the context of adjusting to new routines, children are refusing to return to school, having difficulty concentrating and staying in their seats or any other reaction in a long list of challenging behaviors deserves to have someone take the time to understand why these difficulties are occurring.

Parents as Advocates

Psychologist Dr. Ross Greene, author of Lost at School (2008), made the case that children do well when they can and if they are not doing well, it’s due to a lack of skills. Parents, family caregivers and teachers have the obligation to each child in their care to attempt to identify what is standing the way of those who are not doing well.

School is major part of every child’s life. With an average day of up to eight hours, children spend the majority of their lives at school. School is not only where they learn from books, it is where they begin to learn who they are and how they fit into the world outside their homes and families. The manner in which they acclimate can set the stage for how they navigate the rest of their lives. It’s never safe to assume that things will go smoothly and that children will automatically get what they need, and are entitled to, from the school system. Parents and other family caregivers are the best advocates for their own children and have to become comfortable partnering with the school personnel.

How do parents decide when it is time to ask for help from the school? Actually, if you think it’s time to talk to the school, it is probably past time. Once a family caregiver begins to notice significant problems with a child’s school work or behavior, it is time to address it.

Parents must understand that school personnel are not mental health experts. Teachers and other staff are there because they love children and want to help in every way they can, but they are not trained in how to deal with mental illness. Because they are also human beings, they each bring along their own personal feelings about mental illness and, unfortunately, sometimes those feelings may be clouded by stigma. Parents should be prepared for the fact that they likely will know as much or more about mental illness than the school staff does.

Parents must also have to be aware that the public school systems are usually stretched past capacity and don’t have the time or resources to address the problems of all children readily. Once a school system determines that a child has special needs, they are required to provide those needs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, regardless of cost. Sometimes, teachers are discouraged from identifying children who need additional, and usually expensive, services or accommodations.

Acknowledging and strengthening the alliance between home and school is the goal. The main hope for children at risk for serious mental illness lies in early detection and the fact that childhood is the most intensely watched developmental period in life. Parents and teachers are the closest observers. Problems that surface at home are often amplified in a school setting. With early recognition, accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment, young people living with mental illness can be helped and enjoy success in their school years.

Even if everything goes as planned and the school provides everything that your child needs, there are still no guarantees. School is tough for children. In their book Lonely, Sad and Angry; How to Help Your Unhappy Child, Dr. Barbara Ingersoll and Dr. Sam Goldstein make a profound statement:

“In no other area of a child’s life are demands so relentless and so unremitting as they are in school; in no other setting is a child quite so vulnerable to having his weaknesses and deficits exposed to the eyes of others.”

So much of our children’s self-esteem comes from interactions with peers and adults at school. Unlike adults who can change jobs or ask for a transfer, young people can feel stuck in negative school situations. They cannot rearrange their lives to avoid people or situations that they feel expose their inadequacies. We have to remain aware of how tough the social pressures are for our children on top of everything else that they are trying to deal with, including trying to learn.

Luckily, there are a number of supports for children who are experiencing difficulty adjusting to school. Like with anything else in life, everyone advances towards wellbeing at their own rate. With a parent as advocate, a young person is already part of the way there.

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