“Misreading” the ABCs

You are now well aware of the value of weighing your child's bipolar experience in terms of a positive philosophy, but your child spends most of his time during the week away from home (and you) in a school environment. He sees his teachers more than he sees you! Knowing your child as well as you do, can you project ways in which his mental-health symptoms may be misread or misinterpreted as serious “behaviors” by others during the school day?

Ensuring that your child's mental-health experience is diagnosed (even if it's not officially determined to be bipolar) as early in his school career as possible is likely to help his educators put any issues that bubble up into perspective. Once your child has a formal diagnosis, he may be in a position to receive select services and supports to enable him to be as successful as possible. (One reason that school districts are sometimes unable to provide such services is because the child has not been identified as needing formal supports.) In some instances, though, even if educators are aware of your child's diagnosis, some may misinterpret your child's attributes. Sometimes kids with mental-health issues are labeled as troublemakers and bullies, or they're accused of being lazy, inattentive, or simply not applying themselves to the best of their abilities. In other instances, schools may overlook the child who is working very hard behind the scenes to maintain during the day without exploding but who totally melts down from agitation and stress upon arriving home (or on the bus ride home). The child who has been historically out of control is at risk of being suspended or expelled, and often the parents of such kids are left feeling like failures.

Linda Fusco is a special-education attorney who specializes in supporting school teams for kids with any number of unique needs. She shares her summary of the challenges facing children with mental-health issues that are not clearly identified and communicated to a school team:

Students with bipolar disorder are frequently not viewed by school teams as eligible for special education. Often their “acting out” leaves them categorized as discipline problems or troublemakers. The negative attention that comes from getting into trouble only serves to diminish the student's already flagging self-esteem. The student may be involved in numerous altercations with other students and the school staff that include physical and verbal fights, foul language, class disruptions, and disrespectful interactions. The student may grapple with suicidal thoughts and ideations and suffer incredible loneliness. All of these situations result in severely damaged social connections and isolation for the student with bipolar disorder. As the student feels less valued by the school environment, the depression and self-loathing that often accompany bipolar episodes increases. What follows may be truancy, frequent absences, failure to perform in school, and falling behind in class work. When the student begins to lag further and further behind, the issue of special education then is considered.

Linda's use of the term “special education” refers to individualized educational services and supports and not education delivered in an exclusively segregated setting, or education specific to kids with intellectual impairments. As you've just read, there is great potential for the vicious wheel of self-fulfilling prophecy to perpetuate as a result of your child's struggles being misread by her educators. The approach here also needs to be one of prevention instead of intervention. It will benefit both you and your child if you become an effective advocate where your child's educational needs are concerned.

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