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Bipolar Disorder in Children: School Issues


Topic Overview

Even with treatment, symptoms of bipolar disorder can be difficult to manage and can make school challenging. Regular and honest communication with your child and his or her teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, and school administrators can be the most important factor in helping your child succeed.

Education professionals are experts at helping students with special needs, but in order to do so, they must be kept up to date and informed about what they can do to help. By law, school districts are required to make sure students with conditions like bipolar disorder are given accommodations to help them succeed.

You should work with your child and his or her teachers and guidance counselors to develop an individualized education program (IEP) that takes into account your child's specific needs. A detailed IEP lets each teacher and staff member who works with your child know exactly what he or she can do to help your child. The IEP requires regular reviews and meetings to make adjustments and keep up with any changing needs.

A few accommodations that the school may make to help your child include:

  • Reducing homework or extending deadlines for assignments or tests.
  • Allowing a late start to school if the child is having problems with fatigue or is not sleeping at night.
  • Designating a knowledgeable staff member the child can go to if needed during the school day.
  • Providing special attention or assistance during class if the child needs help sitting still or focusing.
  • Providing a small class size, which may help improve your child's ability to focus during manic episodes. Bipolar disorder does not affect the child's intelligence, so the child should not necessarily be placed in a special education class with children who have learning challenges.
  • Having daily or weekly communication between parents and teachers (through phone, notes, or e-mail) regarding the child's behavior and progress both at home and at school.
  • Attending summer school, to help keep your child at the appropriate grade level if he or she misses too much school during the regular school year.
  • Providing tutoring during extended absences.
  • Using a keyboard or recording a class lecture if the child is having difficulty focusing when taking notes.
  • Placing the child in enrichment programs, such as art, music, or other areas where the child shows strength, to help reduce boredom.
  • Allowing unlimited access to the water fountain and bathroom, especially during manic episodes when keeping his or her body still can be challenging.

During a severe depressive or manic episode, you may need to request a "time-out" from heavy academic requirements for your child to help reduce stress and to keep the child from falling too far behind. Your child may not need a reduction in schoolwork for most mood episodes; however, if the symptoms are severe, this reduction may help keep the child on track at school. You may also want to consider getting extra help (such as a tutor) when needed to assist your child in keeping up with schoolwork.

If your child's symptoms are severe, placement in a day hospital or residential treatment center that treats children with bipolar disorder may be helpful in meeting your child's needs during an extended illness. However, these treatment centers are not always available. It can also be helpful if a designated teacher at your child's school is specially trained in dealing with children who have bipolar disorder. This person can be a good resource and a "safe person" for your child to go to for help during the school day, if needed.

If your school is not understanding or does not support your child's special needs for periodically reduced academic performance, you may be able to work with your child's doctor to get those needs met in the school system. Supporting your child, while not letting the child use bipolar disorder as an excuse to miss assignments, can help him or her develop and succeed academically and socially.

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