When is a more happy-go-lucky time in a child’s life than third grade? Right in the middle of elementary school, before the angst of tween and teen years, the third grade year is a time when school should still be predominantly fun and children, at least in theory, should live a worry-free life.
But that’s not always the case.
For my son, the start of third grade was an exceptionally difficult time. He’d happily attended the same school since kindergarten but suddenly became fearful, sad and withdrawn. He was happy at home, but at school, he sobbed. It was a heartbreaking experience and a confusing time. Did my son have the start of a mental illness?
A pre-pandemic Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of four school districts showed that 1 in 6 school-aged kids had behavioral or emotional symptoms significant enough to be diagnosed with a childhood mental disorder. And, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 50% of lifetime mental health conditions begin before age 14.
A mental health challenge? Or a treatable condition?
When your child is struggling, you want to help. “There’s a lot of stigma around mental illness, and no one wants their child to be mentally ill,” says Judy Gardner, Executive Director of NAMI Washtenaw County. If your child has a depressive episode or anxiety, it doesn’t automatically mean your child needs services or even psychiatric care, she says. “What I tell parents is that when dealing with anxiety and depression, listen to your child and determine the length and severity.”
Parents may worry if their child is sleeping a lot or doesn’t want to spend time with friends. Assess the pattern, suggests Gardner. Is it weeks or months? Or every so often? It’s important to differentiate between signs of poor mental health — which we all have from time to time — and a mental health condition that requires treatment. NAMI has a couple of resources to help, including a manual called Taking Care: A Guide to Mental Health for Everybody and NAMI Basics, a self-guided course designed specifically for caregivers that is available on NAMI’s national website.
If you find that your child’s challenges are temporary, start by reaching out to your child’s teacher or social worker at the school. They can share observations and thoughts about what may be negatively impacting their school performance. They can’t, however, suggest a diagnosis, according to information from NAMI.
Mental health accommodations at school
If your child has persistent challenges, start with their pediatrician and talk frankly about what is happening. Don’t be afraid to seek mental health support from professionals. “Early intervention is important and necessary,” Gardner says. “Get beyond the stigma and get your child the help that is available.”
Your child has the right to a quality education. Knowledge of your child’s rights can help empower you to advocate for them in accessing support at school, whether that means attending a resource room at school, or an individual education plan (IEP) or a section 504 plan. You can request an evaluation “if you feel your child’s mental health issues are interfering with their ability to learn,” says NAMI.
The process for attaining support through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) can be challenging, but don’t let that deter you from insisting upon appropriate support for your child, Gardner says.
“It’s important for parents not to give up,” she says. “Continue to pursue. There are different levels of accommodations and it’s a mandate. It’s the law.”
Listening to your child and believing them when they are struggling are the most important things you can do, Gardner says. “If they tell you what they are feeling and experiencing, and if they tell you they don’t want to go to school, ask why. Then listen and believe them. Give them time and believe what they are saying,” she says.
Addressing mental health challenges and conditions when your child is young is so important, Gardner says. “When you dig deeper into brain development, you’ll find folks who get to college have bad things that happen and they have to go home. Sometimes it was something that wasn’t addressed when they were younger. That 17-25 age range is when things really present themselves if there is a brain or mental health issue,” she says.
I’m grateful I took the time to help my child when he needed it most. Even as I look back, I recognize how challenging third grade was for him — and for me. We were able to help him resolve his difficulties without a formal program under IDEA, but I would have pursued these if necessary, no question.
With the support of a therapist who provided us with tools and exercises and the patience of his teacher and administration at the school — plus plenty of time and love — my son worked through his challenges and went on to have a successful school year.