As a future elementary school teacher, what would be best way to help a student who shows signs of being bipolar, but has not been diagnosed yet? What would be the best way to help a student get through a school day who knows they are bipolar and can distinguish their moods?
In the past I was employed in an outreach school as a “support worker” and helped students who had learning disabilities and/or psychiatric disorders. One of the most important things that I had learned while working in a school was to make the principal aware of when I thought a student was showing signs of mental illness. This is an important first step to take as one’s suspicions that a student is suffering from bipolar disorder for instance may not be accurate. If we are to make this kind of assumption and are incorrect we can end up becoming liable if we are to treat a student as having a mental illness when they do not. In addition parents can become quite upset if school personnel suggest that their child is mentally ill. Only a child/adolescent psychiatrist can determine whether a student has a psychiatric disorder. Law suits can even occur if schools are not careful with the way this issue is dealt with.
Seeing that the principal is in charge of what goes on in a school it would be best to make them aware when you have concerns about a particular student/s. You may also want to bring your concerns to the school’s guidance counsellor as they will often know what to do next. It is my opinion that one should never dabble with what to do to help a student who “may be” mentally ill but rather get further direction from the principal. This way you are protecting yourself and the student from any wrong doing that could occur. In the end you are helping the student by letting your principal know that you are seeing signs of mental illness, the principal can then determine if an assessment and/or intervention is required.
Having said all of that I think that the best way to help a student who may have bipolar disorder but has yet to be diagnosed is to observe that student’s mood/behavior and document what you see. This way you have something concrete to take to the principal. I think it is also vital that you let the principal handle things from there and wait for further direction as like I mentioned earlier your suspicions may be incorrect. For example let the principal deal with the student’s parents, arrange for testing by a school psychologist, and implement a treatment plan or whatever else may be needed in the future to help that student if they do become diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder.
In the meantime I would suggest that aside from observing and documenting things I would treat the student like any other. It is important that the student does not become “labelled” or treated differently because you suspect that they are mentally ill. You may have to give the student some extra time and patience if you believe that will be helpful. Other than that I think it would be wise to wait and see whether the student ends up with a diagnosis. Also be aware of any “confidentiality issues” that may arise, again it is very important that you only discuss the student with either the school’s guidance counsellor and/or principal.
With regards to a student who has been diagnosed as having bipolar disorder the school should have a treatment plan that can be implemented by school personnel. More often than not a student with bipolar disorder qualifies for an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). This is essentially a treatment plan that involves the student, parents, school psychologist, principal, teachers, guidance counsellors, teacher’s aides, etc. It is a plan of action that involves various accommodations and strategies that aid the student throughout the school day. An IEP is a very useful tool as it provides direction for school personnel and helps guide the student and provides the appropriate support. Details of an IEP can vary as it is geared to a student’s individual needs. They are often changed or updated as the student’s needs change. If you are seeing something in the student that is very concerning then bring it to the principal’s attention immediately.
Sometimes students with bipolar disorder can become very overwhelmed with too much noise and/or activity and providing them with a quiet space to work in can often help. Another suggestion is to have the student use what I like to call a “day book” where concerns and progress can be documented by the student’s teacher. The teacher also provides further direction for homework in the “day book”. This can be helpful as it provides the student with direction, consistency and a sense of stability. The student brings it home and it is to be seen and signed by the student’s parent/s on a daily basis. This is a good tool as it keeps the lines of communication open with the teacher and the student’s parent/s. Parents can also add any concerns/comments in the book so teachers are aware of any problems that the child may be experiencing at home which may effect their school day. For example the child may wake up in a really “irritable and grumpy mood” and not have a good start to the day. By writing this in the “day book” a parent is giving the teacher valuable information that they would otherwise not have. This way the teacher is aware and can make the necessary accommodations that will aid the student on that particular day. If the student is resistant to utilizing a “day book”, often times they will comply if you give them some type of “reward” at the end of the week for following through with the process.
A student who has a good awareness of their bipolar symptoms and are able to distinguish their moods may not need something like a “day book”. If they are capable of recognizing changes in their moods they may already have been taught some good coping skills by a counselor or a psychologist. In this case encouragement and praise are helpful as that reinforces to the student that they are doing well with managing their illness. If a student recognizes fluctuations in their mood at school but are having difficulty knowing how to cope a good option would be to have them see the schools guidance counselor. Often times the counselor can provide some suggestions and support to the student to help them cope in a positive way.
For a student who has difficulty with identifying their moods, a mood chart, emotion cards and/or a feeling faces poster can help them learn about different feelings and moods. Once the student has a decent understanding of their moods and how they can change they sometimes don’t know what to do afterwards. They may need additional support and help with learning some coping tools that will help them manage their feelings and mood changes. Not only will the student be happier but their parent/s will be as well as the school has taught their child something that is very valuable. Some teachers may believe that their only job is to “teach academics”. However if teachers can “think outside of the box”, it will be very beneficial for those students who struggle socially and emotionally as opposed to just focusing only on the student’s “academics”. Thank you for submitting your question and please send any further comments or questions that you may have in the future to www.askabipolar.com