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Parent To Teacher: Tip Sheet

by: Susan Hess, March 2006

Suggestions from a parent to a teacher: how to recognize and handle a child with mental health problems.


For all children, school is their social and business environment.

For kids with mental health challenges, however, it is within the school environment that they often come up against serious or significant frustrations and lack of understanding.  Often our youth are categorized as “the behaviour problem…the bad kid…the lazy one.”

Children’s mental health is not well understood by most of the population.  It is not surprising, therefore, that many (not all, but many) school personnel do not understand either.  For both parents and youth, dealing with school personnel who do not understand the issue is daunting.

I am a parent of a child with mental health problems.  I am also a former teacher.  Yet my insights about my child have been dismissed, my suggestions ignored and sometimes not even believed.  When my child was in school, I was constantly angry at the injustice that my child experienced and frustrated that she did not receive what she needed to have a positive experience in school.

Teachers, please take the time to understand first…

For children with mental health problems:

  • Change is a huge roadblock.
  • Often, they do not understand their own behaviour, nor do they have the words to express what is troubling them.
  • Often they see and hear the world around them differently.
  • They may be highly intuitive, hyper-sensitive, and hyper-diligent.  This colours how they respond and react to life’s situations.
  • They need to feel secure, and they can sense very quickly if there is a change.  They often feel like they are “trapped in a corner” with no way out.
  • They really do want to be “regular kids who have friends”.

What can teachers do?

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Never call our kids “bad” or refer to them as ”lazy.”
  • Take the time to find the “root cause” of the behaviours, then be our partner in helping us find the supports and treatments that our youngsters need.
  • Examine the exceptions to the rule.  For example, a girl runs away 12 times over a six-month period for a total of 20 days.  There were 220 days she did not run.  The question is:  ”Why did she not run those 220 days and how can we use this to support her?”
  • Do not focus on an isolated “bad event.”  Find the strengths of the youngster and focus on these strengths, building on the positives.
  • Be flexible and patient.  Ask yourself these questions in connection with our kids needs and supports
  • Maybe she could…but can she?
  • Maybe he can’t…but should he?
  • NEVER GIVE UP, even if you feel that you have tried all avenues.  Begin again.  Try a different approach.  Understand that it sometimes can take three or four different people to help our kids through distress.  Problem-solving needs to take place when the child is ready, not when you are ready.
  • Understand that our kids need to be evaluated on a scale where the assessment of performance is based on their best at the moment, not on someone else’s best.
  • Know that our kids need to feel good about themselves before they can be receptive to learning anything.
  • Understand that the living core of our whole life is based on relationships and interpersonal contacts.  Develop these connections with our kids ….
  • Work at building trust with our kids.  This can take a long time, but it is worth the time and energy.  When our kids trust you enough to share their emotions with you, you can begin to work with them.
  • Respect, trust, confidence, genuineness, validation and empathy are the qualities that you need to build these needed connections.
  • The smallest things can make a huge difference and may impact our child’s day, week, or even lives.
  • Discipline our kids; do not punish them.  Discipline includes teaching, improvement and correction.  Our kids need to be accountable for their actions in a way that has meaning for them – this is the important piece – so that positive change will occur.

Most importantly, please like our kids.


  • Recognize the whole person in our child
  • Encourage our kids to believe in themselves even when no one else does.
  • Be compassionate; recognize and acknowledge the struggle that our kids face.
  • Do not be afraid to use your sense of humour.
  • Do not categorize our kids unless it will lead to a better understanding of their needs.
  • Do not separate teaching the child skills from building their self-esteem.
  • Understand our kids’ world: how they see, hear, feel.  Understand what it is like to live in their world.  Then adjust your plan to meet their need. REMEMBER:  A need is not a program.  A program is the plan that helps the need be met.  Be sure that the program is the right plan to meet the child’s need.
  • Recognize how scary it is for our kids to manoeuvre in this world when they do not understand what is happening or why people respond to them the way that they do.
  • Do not put so much distance between yourself and our kids.  Take a personalized approach.  Teach the whole person.  Value the whole person.  Do NOT FOCUS ONLY ON THINGS, PRODUCTION and OUTCOMES.
  • Remember the “ripple effect.”  Whatever happens within the school, no matter how small, can affect our kids even days later.
  • Use all your teaching skill
    • Create a “trusting culture” within the classroom and within the school.  Trust that within the kid there is something trustworthy.  The kids will then give this trust back to you, the teacher.
    • Teach our kids little ways to reduce their stress and to manage their anxiety.  For example: take the word Omaha.  Break it down into the syllables O…..Ma…..Ha.  Have them say each syllable as loud and as long as they can.  This helps release tension, and creates laughter.
    • Instead of “time outs” or “programs,” have “peace circles” or “cool down rooms.”  Change the focus from negative and punitive to one that is positive and nurturing so that the child has permission to ask for time to take care of themselves.
    • Help our kids explore their behaviours.  Help them understand that there is always a reason for these behaviours.  Once the reason is discovered, a better understanding will occur for both of you and this will help you relate to our youngster to better be able to help them.  For example, my daughter never used her locker at school.  She preferred to keep everything – boots, coat, books – under her desk.  By exploring the reason for this behaviour, we discovered it was a security issue.  She needed to have control over a little piece of her world where she had so little control.  Having her “treasures” near her gave her comfort and a sense of security.
    • Always find the “teaching moments.”

    Build relationships with the parents and family

    • Nurture the creation of a support network of “champions” for our child and the family, people who have our child’s need front and centre.
    • Recognize how frightening it is for the family members who have to fight the stigma, the blame and the shame of the mental health problems that are directing the behaviours and actions of the child.
    • Ask questions in conversation to understand the whole picture.  Understand that as parents, we are exhausted and isolated.  We know no one who has a child like ours.  Understand that this child is just one member of a family, all of whom must be nurtured.
    • Realize that the one thing that we as parents want and that we rarely get is for teachers to listen, to be an empty vessel and just listen to us, without judgment.  Keep your learned knowledge in the background.  Draw from your wisdom, your intuitive self.  Listen to everything we say.  Be open to hear not only our words but also our silences.
    • Cradle our anger, frustrations and fears with your perceptions, sensitivity, support and reassurance in a co-operative manner so we know that we are not alone.
    • Be comfortable with our silences and our tears.  When we know that you understand, we will trust and begin to build a working relationship with you.
    • Encourage and nurture these relationships with parents.  Make us feel part of the solution.  Help us all develop into “solution people” not “excuse people.” Solutions will help our kids feel connected and grow into their potential, whatever that may be.
    • Teach, guide and encourage parents to become advocates for their child.  Lead them to the understanding that they are their child’s best advocate and that this will be their lifetime vocation.

FINAL NOTES:As parents, we acknowledge that our kids are not easy to have in the classroom.  It is also not easy for them.  Our kids are worth the extra time and energy.Teachers and parents need to work together, not against each other.  They need to be partners in guiding and supporting our youngsters.  I believe that most parents love their child and want the best for them.  I also believe that most teachers want the best for the children they are teaching.  It is important that both sides learn to communicate clearly, so they can be partners in the child’s future growth and development.Parents and teachers together need to continue to find ways to help our kids with mental health problems manoeuvre successfully in their school environment and to feel connected.

About Susan Hess:

  • Susan Hess is a speaker, mother, widow, and award-winning volunteer. Susan Hess has the ability to move audiences to both laughter and tears with stories of children and their families who have faced the challenge of mental health problems in children.
  • Past Volunteer President of Parents for Children’s Mental Health, Susan is available to speak to groups of all types about the impact of children’s mental health problems on the children and their families.
  • (permission to reproduce granted S. Hess – Nov. 2008)