How can teachers be most supportive of students that are bi-polar?

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?

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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.

Communicate

Validate

Patience

De-Escalate

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!

7 thoughts on “How can teachers be most supportive of students that are bi-polar?

  1. Betsy: I grealty appreciate this article about being supportive for students with bipolar disorder. Working in class on classroom management and best practices alongside this has really helped to make the lessons memorable and helpful. I hope to provide a positive support system for all my future students and this will certainly help me achieve that goal.

    Mo: Thank you so much for sharing your advice! I was great learning about what helped you and your son get through schoool and I am glad you had such a great support system. Hopefully I will be able to provide all my students with a great support system as well in the future. Thanks for all the help!

    Nste: Thanks so much for sharing this information and your experiences! This was very good to read and learn as a future teacher. Thanks!

    Shurouq: Thanks you much for this wonderful information that you give us. I will be using this information in the furture teaching.

    Allison: Thank you so much for your response! I really found it helpful and I know it will be of use to me in the future!

    Chelsea: I appreciate the information and experience that you have shared. We went through these in class and it was very helpful for thinking about future scenarios that we may face in our classrooms.

    Adam: All of these ways of accomodating sound great and seem to be very helpful. It may be helpful for us to have some advice on how to juggle these accomodations in an integrated classroom setting, too. We all know working one-on-one is very different from the classroom setting. Thanks!

    Andrew: Thank you so much for your insight into this issue that very well may face some of my students in the future. Your advice will be very valuable in preparing for my and my classmates’ futures as educators. Thanks so much for taking time to help us learn how to best accomodate these students.

    I am so thankful for your contribution to our class this semseter. It is indespensibly valuable to us to hear practical application for the things that we are learning about. You advice is practical and sensible, and I am glad to have this kind of information to bring into my own classroom one day.
    Thank you again!-Holli

    Thank you so mcuh for sharing these experiences with our class! We have learned about such topics you brought up in class and I will put what I have learned into use.-Erica

  2. So the student can basically do what ever they want at any time. Clearly written by someone with little knowledge of professional education and that thinks their kid is only person that a teacher has to help. (Example: Hold on class while we go for a walk)

    All IEP accommodations have to be researched based. I’d love to see some on how napping *in class* improves learning.

  3. I can understand how this may be hard to take in, especially if you have not dealt with a child who suffers from bipolar disorder. Let me give you a little background.

    Last year my son got sent home from school an average of 2 to 3 days a week. He even was on Home Bound schooling for a quarter of the year because he wasn’t able to function in class. It was frustrating and exhausting. There was no way I could get a job and I was always on edge waiting for that phone call telling me to pick him up.

    So together, with the help of our family therapist, a good friend who works in Spec Ed, the State Advocacy group AND the school, we came up with a fantastic IEP. First we did the research. As he is in Special Education for being emotionally impaired, it’s not unheard of to have a one-on-one aid. This aid took extremely detailed notes of each day and what things worked and what things didn’t work. We pulled together reports as to what times of the day were worst, and what triggered his outbursts. It was a very LONG process.

    So I did in fact spend MUCH time researching his rights as a Special Education student and collaborating with the advocacy group to make sure what I was asking for was not out of line.

    And so yes, sometimes he falls asleep at his desk for fifteen minutes, and yes, his aid does need to take him out of the classroom to gather himself. But that is what the aid is for. And the best part about it all, he hasn’t been sent home once since the beginning of the year. He also happens to be at the top of his class in most subjects. And most of these accommodations aren’t even needed because he has thrived on the plan we have in place.

    When it comes to schooling a child with bipolar disorder, it can be almost impossible to keep them in school. Many of them get punished for things out of their control. Teachers do not take the time to understand the illness. I know, I’ve lived it. So just the pure fact that my son attends school EVERY day with awesome daily reports at the end of the day, this in of itself is an accomplishment not only from him, but also from the administration.

    So how does napping in class improve learning? Giving him that quick 15 minutes (which is necessary sometimes because his meds do cause drowsiness and thus far are the only meds which have seemed to make a difference) is totally worth it because it keeps him in school. Without it he’d probably be sent home for some sort of rage and THAT is what hinders his education.

    Also note that my child is 8. He’s in the second grade. He’s not a teenager. I’m not sure this advice would apply to a teenager as I have yet to experience it. I’m sorry if you found my post unsatisfactory, but my son is living proof that these types of accommodations greatly benefit the child.

  4. Its sounds like the accomodations that need to be made for a child with bipolar is just like the accomodations you would make for a child with a learning disability or something of that nature. (Not that the accomodations themselves are the same, but that it is the same concept). I WISH that I had known back when I was in school that I was bipolar and that teachers would have understood me more. I was constantly anxious and always had to go to the bathroom, but the teachers wouldn’t allow me to go because they didn’t want “trouble in the halls or bathrooms,” so I would become more anxious about even going to school. I would frequently go nights without sleeping and know that I had to be in school because if I missed a certain number of days, I wouldn’t graduate. Instead, I turned to caffeine pills to stay awake. Yea, I know, the Jessi Spano thing, but that was just the start. I would then get antsy, couldn’t sit still, didn’t want to pay attention and became even more disruptive to the class. Give me a hall pass to take a trip to the bathroom to splash water on my face or just breathe for a little bit, and I would have learned more, and the whole class would have learned more, in addition to less stress on the teacher! But, I unfortunately wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar until my mid-20’s and looking back, I think about all the signs. I don’t think that accomodations for bipolar children are in any way, any different that accomodations for a handicapped child or a child with a learning disability. At our school, if you were on crutches or were in a wheelchair, you were excused from class a few minutes early so you could navigate the halls better. I don’t think that is any different from allowing a bipolar child the right to be excused from class to take a walk because they are becoming overwhelmed or need to calm down. I think sometimes we forget that these are children we are talking about, not adults. Adults have a much greater understanding for their own feelings and emotions and how to control them, at least more than children. Children are still learning; and a bipolar child, well, their feelings are just off the chart, so how could anyone expect them to understand THOSE feelings enough to understand how to regulate those feelings when other children their own age can’t even make sense of their own feelings.

    I don’t think any of the accomodations suggested in this are so unreasonable that a child’s school can not accomodate them. I think it takes a lot of patience for the teachers who have bipolar children in their classes. I also think that a lot of those kids that were always thought of as trouble makers or punks in class, may have had something like bipolar. Having the child diagnosed makes it much easier to handle the child in the classroom because you clearly know what issue the child is struggling with. That’s like somone with cancer going to a doctor and saying they are sick. The doctor presribes some medicine without knowing what they are sick from. If the doctor knew the patient had cancer, then he may have prescribed something to help with that specific cancer.

    I think it goes back to the teacher having the patience and also the willingness to learn about the illness and how to handle the school year with that child. I think the knowledge will in return benefit the teacher, the class, and the particular student.

    aaannnnddddddd, that’s all I have to say about that….. 🙂

  5. I cannot believe how much you have described me as a child in this blog! I really appreciate what you have said here. I did teach for a while and although it would take some adjustments I agree with the comment that this is very similar to the way special needs children are accommodated at school. Bipolar is an illness and no one is able to just will it away. If that were possible I would have found a way to get rid of it some time in childhood. It was not easy to be a bipolar child and school was extremely difficult for me. I excelled in college but that was only because I was able to mold my schooling around my illness which you cannot do until college without assistance from both the teachers and the school. I wish more people understood bipolar children as you obviously do here. I am so grateful that when I have children, if one of them has to deal with this illness they will be understood and cared for better than I ever could have been. Thank you for this post!!!

  6. It is teacher appreciation week. Don’t forget to thank all the amazing teachers you come in contact w/ for their hard work and dedication to your children.

    One of the major problems in todays world is that people with special needs are looked down upon b/c they get to “do whatever they want” or are “always out of control”. Unfortunately this is a completely inaccurate description or thought of how this really works. The letters IEP stand for Individualized Education Plan… individualized being the key word. In a world where differentiated instruction is the big catch phrase and teachers are asked to differentiate to meet the needs of all students IEP’s work to make that goal more attainable for teachers. A student with an IEP has an IEP for very specific, well defined and documented reasons. The IEP team works collaboratively to define a level of instruction that will work to meet the needs of the child. It is the schools responsibility to meet the needs of each child who walks through their door. This is a federal law, FAPE, Free Appropriate Public Education and many schools and/or districts have gone to court and lost significant amounts of money for not providing FAPE to children.

    What Marybeth presents as possible accommodations for children with bipolar are completely realistic attempts for a school and family to work together to accommodate a student. While it might appear that Pdog is getting to do whatever he would like, really what is happening is that he is being offered his education in a way that works for him (once again that key word Individualized). Pdog is also, with the supports of teachers, ancillary staff and his 1:1, learning valuable coping strategies for staying in school and handling difficult situation. It also sounds as if Pdog is doing a phenomonal job at generalizing what he is learning (about coping, anger management, etc.) over multiple situations and days; something that is not easy and he deserves a massive high five for!

    While one might think that typical aged peer of Pdogs could make it through an entire day of school without sleep, this is not completely accurate. I have taught at both the elementary and high school level and on a regular basis have student of all ages falling asleep in class. I have worked with high school students who have accommodations that allow them to take breaks, utilize a calm down space, call their parents or sometimes just leave the room altogether. Just because a student needs to use these accommodations does not make them any less entitled to their education. Accommodations are just what they name suggests. They are to accommodate a student in receiving their education… in whatever was necessary. I recently sat through a Special Education Law class in which we spent a great deal of time talking about accommodations. No where does the federal law state that the only accommodations written into an IEP need to be researched based. Accommodations are a support to the student… and typically a special education teacher would have well document reasons/support as to why the accommodation is necessary and beneficial to a student.

    I don’t think that anything Marybeth writes should lead one to assume she thinks that her child is the only one that the teacher needs to attend to. She did say more than once that Pdog has a one to one aide which is the person who would be spending a great deal of time with Pdog. What Marybeth presents is a year of trial and error, learning the ins and out of a child with bipolar, learning how to get him through school and some insight for other parents who might be going through the same struggles. I think the work that Marybeth has put into advocating for her son is great.

Thoughts? Questions? Leave your feedback here!