How can teachers be most supportive of students that are bi-polar? What might you suggest about homework that isn’t completed when the child is going through a depressed state?
I have been lucky enough, and blessed, to have the teachers for PDog that I do. I’ve had to fight quite hard to get the accommodations that he has, but the fight was worth it, even they can’t deny it.
The thing about teaching a bipolar child is, you need to be patient and understanding. You need to be quick on your feet and ready for any situation. And you need to have thick skin.
Situations you may/probably will encounter teaching a bipolar child …
- Short attention spans – Most children with bipolar (from my experiences at least) also have ADHD, and bipolar can actually act in similar ways as ADHD, especially when a child is manic. When they are manic, their mind is racing. They have to keep up with their own thoughts while trying to pay attention to what’s going on around them and let me tell you from experience, it’s not easy! They need the ability to take a step back. Maybe stand up and walk around. Sometimes they may even need to step out of the classroom for a minute to gather their thoughts, maybe even share them with you. It’s important to find something that helps them slow their thoughts. My son has a little toy that when you flip it over the liquid runs to the other side. This toy is used for calming purposes. This toy is WONDERFUL!
- Rages – This is why a teacher MUST have thick skin when they have a bipolar student. Bipolar children are scary when they rage. They might call you names, tell you they hate you, they may even try to physically harm you. They do this because they are searching for some sort of control. They are too upset to express what they are feeling through words and their anger escalates to a point where no matter how hard they try, they just can’t control it anymore. Calling you names puts them in control of their feelings about you. If they hate you, you can’t do anything about it. It’s their feeling and they will hold on to that feeling (until the rage has passed, then they’ll love you again). Acknowledge this feeling of theirs. Tell them you understand, but that it doesn’t stop you from liking them and thinking they are awesome person. Counter all their negative words and actions with positives. The point is to help de-escalate the situation. If you can stay calm and positive, you’ll have better luck than if you get all worked up with you. They want you to get worked up, and they will feed on it. Know that it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with a lack of control. Bipolar children (and adults) need some sort of control and our feelings and actions are sometimes the only thing we can control. The more you fight it, the more we’ll push you for not validating the feelings. It’s hard to swallow sometimes, especially when the child hates you and he hates himself and he wants burn the school down or other violent acts. But the key is to talk to him about those things. As why? and What do you think would happen if you did that? and How do you think that makes me feel? or your parents, or the other kids in the school? The more you can get them to verbalize their feelings, the easier it will be to calm them down.
- Depression – They want to die. And they might even tell you how. Or they want to run away. My son used to hide under desks and cry out of pure depression. It was scary and heartbreaking. Sometimes he’d just throw himself on the floor and lie their stiff and dead to the world. It’s hard to deal with these moments because there isn’t much you can do. Again, you must validate their feelings. Coax them to expand on these feelings. And yes, work will probably need to be pushed to the side and sent home. I can’t even begin to tell you how much work we are trying to catch up on from PDog this year. Luckily the teachers are understanding and see that he is taking in what they are teaching. I thank them for their understanding.
- Extreme hyperactivity – Imagine this … Racing thoughts, thoughts that include grand ideas and a sense of being able to accomplish anything and everything, but then having to do it NOW. Who can sit still when they know exactly how to build their own tree house and if they don’t do it now the world may never see the art of the most awesome tree house man has ever seen!!! … it happens. And they will be happy and talk ten miles per minute. And if you push them to calm down, you may find yourself dealing with a rage. At points like this it may be advisable to let them have a break. Let them run around the gym or take them for a walk around school. Then after you’ve appeased them for five to ten minutes explain that it’s time to get back to work. Point out that you’ve just done something nice for them, now you would like them to do something for you. Bipolarees have big hearts, and they are people pleasers, it’s likely they will want to make you happy after you’ve done something nice for them.
- Gone – I just finished reading the book “Room”. In the book which is told from the perspective of a 5yr old, he explains that there are days when his Ma is just Gone. There is nothing he can do to make it better. And on these days there is probably nothing you can do to make it better for them either. You may have to call their parent and explain the situation and suggest may the child takes a day off. Send the work home with them. Don’t treat it as a negative thing, tell them everyone has these days.
- Sleep – It is not uncommon for PDog to lay his head down in the middle of class and just conk out for a 1/2 hour. His teachers and I have decided on a set amount of time he is allowed to sleep if this happens. Sleep is very important to all persons with bipolar. There are many reasons why he may need a nap through out the day. Maybe he didn’t sleep well the night before. Maybe he was manic and had a hard time getting to sleep. Maybe his meds make him drowsy. PDog gets tired for all of the aforementioned reasons. If you can pinpoint the reason why the child is tired, you can gauge when a quick nap may in fact be appropriate.
- More absent days than a typical child – It’s almost unavoidable. A bipolar child goes through so many emotions and it is common for them to miss more days than most children. Sometimes they are sick more. Anxiety can cause stomach issues and other such physical ailments. If they are worried about a big test or something of the sort, they may even fake a sickness. Have the test waiting for them when they return. Tell them that all they need to do is their best (which is usually exceptional as bipolaree’s tend to be very intelligent) and if they don’t do that great it’s ok. It just helps you as a teacher know that there are areas that they might need more help in. It doesn’t mean they are a failure.
- Perfectionism – They will right a word or a sentence and it might not look perfect enough or the words didn’t come out right. Expect some massive unnecessary force with an eraser and possible even a ripping or crumpling of the paper. It took PDog forever to learn that not everything has to be perfect, actually, he’s still working on it. (Hell, I’M still working on that one!) Uncrumple the paper or tape it back together. Ask them to start over and just focus on putting the words or the sentence down and not worrying about how it looks. Be prepared for a rage, but do what you can to avoid one. Maybe to the point of even just asking them what they want to write and writing it for them. There are times where PDog’s one-on-one will write one sentence for every sentence that he writes. At first she was doing this often, but not so much now.
- Anti-socialism – Bipolar children have a hard time interacting with peers. They feel different and worry that others are judging them, when in fact most bipolar children are quite charismatic. PDog actually sees a social worker and attends special sessions where he works one-on-one with other students. And actually his classmates love him. They accept him despite his outbursts and special treatment. It’s almost as if they understand that he’s different from them, but that’s fine with them. Sometimes you just have to coax them to interact with others, and other times you just need to respect their need to be alone. As you get to know the child, you’ll learn to understand the difference.
- Manipulation – It’s a trait. Bipolarees are EXCELLENT manipulators. Half the time we don’t even know we’re doing it. Not one of my favorite symptoms to tell ya the truth. It takes time, but you’ll learn when their actions are beyond their control or if they are trying to manipulate the system. But unfortunately … like I said, it takes time!
- Hunger fluctuations – Depending on moods and meds, the child’s hunger can be all over the place. One day their need for food may be insatiable and the next they may not want anything at all. We’ve learned to have snacks ready at all times. Sometimes even offering a snack to help de-escalate a situation. There is not much you can do about this one. Communicate with the parent, let them know if their hunger situation gets out of control. They may need a med change and/or (especially as they get older) may be developing an eating disorder.
I know this all seems overwhelming, but the more you know the easier it is to handle a child with bipolar. There are key words to take from all these examples.
Be prepared for any and all situations. Be understanding and know that all work may not get done on time or as expected. Empathy is important. Letting the child know you genuinely care helps more than you could even imagine. They thrive on praise and congratulations and falter when they fail.
I also want to offer some ideas for accommodating a child with bipolar.
1. A one-on-one aid. This was a crucial part of PDogs success. He’s slowly needing her less and integrating with his peers more. But sometimes just knowing that he has that one person he can turn to or that will keep him on track if he falls makes all the difference in and of itself. At the beginning of the year he was quite dependent on her. They sat at their own table in the back of the room and away from the other children. Slowly he started moving closer to the class. He even has his own desk and she has claimed the table as her desk. It’s amazing the progress he’s made!
2. Testing Accommodations such as extended testing time, secluded testing areas, frequent breaks, writing the answers for them, letting them move around while you read them the questions. All these things will make testing not only easier for them, but easier for you as the instructor because you will not have to fight to get them to the work.
3. Regular breaks. Times to take a walk, get a drink, have a snack, take a breath and mainly gather their thoughts as well as have a moment alone to wash away any anxieties.
4. A cool down space. A room where they can go when they are raging or misbehaving. It needs to be consistent. The same room every time. Consistency is very important. Change is very bad!
5. A behavior/discipline/rewards plan. This will vary from child to child. But having a consistent set of disciplinary action is very important. They need to know what to expect if they do something inappropriate. PDog has a reward/discipline system. Every day he gets 15 minutes of computer time all to himself. Each time he makes a bad choice, minutes get deducted. He’s learned very quickly that he prefers making good choices over losing his computer time. It’s a perfect way to practice rewards while also providing consequences.
There are other accommodations that can be made that vary from child to child. Both the school and I have learned that having a well thought out and carried out IEP (Individual Education Plan) as well as a written Behavior Plan has made all the difference in his success this year.
There is no point fighting the needs of a bipolar student. They have different needs than others. It’s not their fault, and in my opinion, it is cruel to ignore those needs or punish them for things that are out of their control.
I do hope this helped in gaining perspective and hopefully knowledge in educating a child with bipolar. Feel free to ask any other questions you may have. I feel strongly about providing the proper accommodations for bipolar children. And when done correctly, Everyone Wins!