This is our final column from State Representative Liz Linehan (D-103) dealing with mental health issues involving children and teens. If you missed any of these columns, they are posted on our website, www.cheshireherald.com, under “Opinion,” “Guest Columns.”
This is the fifth and final installment in my series on children’s mental health, in partnership with The Herald.
Each of these columns were meant to follow a natural progression of a child in crisis. First, we examined the warning signs, and then we walked parents through different ways to find help in regard to counseling and in-home care and safety plans, and then focused on the family unit and what supporting all members of the family can look like. We’ll end this series on an important part of continuing care specifics about how to support your children in school.
We are so very fortunate to have a school system that places such importance on mental health and well-being. I asked Marie Broadway, secondary supervisor of Special Education for Cheshire Public Schools, and Ben Chaback, licensed clinical social worker at Dodd Middle School, to write me a synopsis of the programs available to your child in any of our schools. This is what they had to say:
“Many parents are not aware of the supports CPS provides within each of their buildings to support students’ social/emotional development. To start, each school employs school counselors, school psychologists and school social workers (middle through high school). These professional mental health providers support students throughout the school day to access their education while supporting their social/emotional needs.
It is important for parents to know that the mental health professionals within each school are present for their children throughout any school day. Along the same lines, mental health needs amongst students are common each day, so please do not feel like you are alone if you are seeking assistance. CPS school-based mental health professionals are versed in many levels of intervention, such as (but not limited to) conflict resolution, management, grief/loss counseling, school avoidance, self-harm, and suicide intervention. They also serve as a safe place for students to speak with someone outside of the classroom setting for guidance in whatever obstacle a student may face.
If deemed appropriate, scheduled individual and/or group counseling can be done in school to support a student’s needs, and the mental health professionals can consult with any outside providers, and they can help support parents through any challenges they are facing with their student at home in relation to school.
Many CPS schools are also fortunate to have support animals. Our elementary schools partner with Pet Partners who bring therapy animals such as trained dogs to work with students and staff twice a month. Other schools, such as Dodd, have small pet companions as well. These therapy animals allow for a calming companion during a break from class or to join in during individual/group counseling.
In short, students’ mental health journeys should never be traveled individually and the school is always willing and able to be there for support and expertise as part of a collaborative approach between students, families, and outside providers.”
All this is wonderful, but exactly how do you access that? There are a few ways. First, I suggest you simply reach out to your child’s school administrator about the challenges your family is facing. Many times, a first intervention can be made with a simple phone call, and the right people at the school will work with you to get your child what they need to succeed. Should you require greater intervention, there are a few ways to achieve that.
A 504 Plan may be helpful. The Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects individuals with disabilities, and Section 504 of that federal law specifically protects students. If your child has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, your pediatrician may write a letter to the school stating that diagnosis, and then the school will work to provide accommodations for your child so that their disability does not impede their ability to learn.
There are no set rules of what those accommodations need to be. By simply putting together a list of things that are a concern to your child, oftentimes the school has suggestions on how to help. You can also suggest your own, like if your child’s anxiety gets worse when they feel blocked in, or stuck in a classroom, you can request that they be seated by a door, or allowed to walk the hallway during downtime.
When targeted interventions are unsuccessful, Cheshire Public Schools provide a continuum of services to support the learning, behavioral and social/emotional needs of identified students with disabilities. A Planning and Placement Team is responsible for developing Individualized Education Plans, which are implemented by General Education, Special Education, and Pupil Services Support staff to meet the specific educational needs of each child. Parents are an integral part of this important educational process.
An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) provides specialized instruction and related services to meet a child’s unique needs. Not every child will qualify for an IEP. To qualify, your child must have one of 13 disabilities listed in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The disability must affect the child’s educational performance and/or ability to learn and benefit from the general education curriculum, and the child must need specialized instruction to make progress in school. Among those 13 disability categories listed is “Emotional Disturbance.” Various mental health issues can fall under the “emotional disturbance” category. They may include anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression. In order to qualify, a comprehensive assessment and psychological evaluation report must be compiled, after which the team will meet again to discuss next steps.
I know there is fear associated with having these things on your child’s “permanent record,” but you’ve come this far knowing your child needs help. Please do not let the fear of the stigma associated with mental health concerns stop you from getting your child the help they need. Especially in the years surrounding COVID, there will be more and more of these evaluations and IEPs; your child is not alone. If your child does qualify for the IEP, more accommodations can be made to give your child every chance at success.
The important takeaway from this entire series is that there are support services out there for every child, family, and parent, and your family is not the only one facing these challenges. If you or someone you love needs help, please reach out to one of the many support services listed in this series, or visit my webpage at housedems.ct.gov/Linehan for a downloadable version of pediatric mental health services in the area. I’ll leave you with something Ben Chaback said to me months ago, which I literally think of daily — “For our kids to grow healthy, we must water their roots, not clip their leaves.” By accessing treatments and services, you’re helping your child learn the survival skillsets of self-soothing, resiliency, and good mental health care. In other words, you’re helping to “water their roots.”