Supporting Students with Mental Health Needs at School

Students with mental health, emotional, or behavioral needs, like all children, need to be understood, supported, and appreciated in their schools and communities. Specialized services and supports may be required to help these children succeed at school, and problems at school can create or increase mental health needs. As schools have resumed in-person learning for most students this year, it’s become clear that mental health is a significant area of need. United States Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona recently released a startling statistic in a report on school age children’s mental health needs. The report stated that before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 1 in 5 students was struggling with their mental health–an already concerning number–but researchers now estimate it has increased to close to 8 out of every 10 students!

Students are returning to school after more than a year of isolation from their peers and other social supports. Many families are dealing with financial crises including housing or job losses. Many children have experienced their own illness or that of a family member. They may have even lost family members including parents or other loved ones. These traumatic events are likely to affect a child so significantly that they will struggle with school and learning. Students with disabilities went without or were provided very reduced school-based resources and supports during remote learning, including mental health services or other help that they need to learn. All these factors create significant risk of an increased need for mental health screening and services at a time when schools are dealing with the continuing risk of COVID-19 and shortages of school staff, including nurses, counselors, and teachers.

Originally published by the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) on 29 October 2021. Used with Permission.

Problems with mental health can influence school attendance, academic performance, graduation and dropout rates, behavior and discipline problems and health and safety risks. Unmet mental health needs affect not just individual students but also families, schools and communities and need to be addressed as early as possible. And problems at school often increase a student’s needs for mental health support. It’s a two-way street.

For children with disabilities or suspected disabilities, it’s important to determine if and how mental health challenges might be creating difficulties at school. Sometimes the signs of a problem are obvious, but they can be hard to see. A student may withdraw, act out, struggle to learn, resist going to school, or show other signs of stress through their behavior. They may put all their energy into getting through the school day, only to fall apart at home because they are so stressed. A child who did not previously qualify for special education or a 504 plan may need to be evaluated to determine if they are now eligible for that help. Teams may need to adjust existing IEP or 504 plans so that mental health support can be added, increased or provided differently.

The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) requires that an IEP (Individualized Education Program) be created in all areas of need for an eligible student, regardless of disability category they are in. Often, the mental health needs of disabled children and youth are overlooked because school staff assume that whatever problems or needs occur are the result of their known disability or problems at home. They may tell a family that “all children with autism struggle with that behavior” for example, when parents try to explain a new issue. A child’s needs should never be determined based on stereotypes about their known disability or assumptions about their home situation and can only truly be assessed by reviewing available data and the evidence collected as part of an evaluation. Regardless of the source of the problem, if it is so significant that the child is struggling to attend, participate, learn, and behave at school, an evaluation is the only way to determine whether they qualify for services and support under existing education and disability laws. The process involves testing as well as input from parents, the student, educators, and outside professionals and direct observation and timelines apply for how quickly it must be done. Both formal and informal data helps the team determine what kind of services, supports, and help will best benefit a student in achieving their education goals. An evaluation should be whenever concerns arise, regardless of whether the student is in preschool, high school, or somewhere in between.

When requesting a mental health evaluation, make sure you document your concerns and give examples when you request the evaluation. Here is a sample letter to use as a guide: Requesting an ERMHS (Educationally Related Mental Health Services) Assessment. Different states and school districts may use different terminology for this type of evaluation but our sample letter gives you instructions about how to describe the problems you’re seeing. Another resource is our School Reintegration/Transition Plan Sample Letter for students who are struggling to return to school after a health, including mental health crisis: And our free online training this month focuses on mental health needs, behavior and discipline—find complete details  in the training information provided below.

It is essential that schools, healthcare providers and families work together to ensure that students get the mental health support they need to attend, participate, and succeed at school. Recognizing the increased need, extra state and federal funding is going to schools to address it. Parents and other stakeholders need to weigh in on how these funds are used. There are many ways to do this, including writing to the superintendent and school board, attending public meetings to speak, or participating in budget and funding decision making committees. Contact your school leadership to learn more about these opportunities.

Disability is part of human diversity, and mental health is an important consideration for all of us. We hope these resources assist you in making sure that all students get the help they need to learn and succeed at school.

Mental Health Resources:

Other Resources:

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