Back to school is in the air. Can you smell it? For parents of children with mental illness this is a stressful time and for those children, even more problematic. Rather than “I love school and can’t wait to get there,” Sunday nights are filled with anxiety and stress, exacerbating symptoms already difficult to handle for all children and their families.
When I got my Masters in Teaching early education (CLAD Credential), I learned many things about teaching all kinds of diverse kids. I did not learn, however, anything about what to do if my students started showing signs of mental illness and, boy, would that have been helpful. In one case, I intuitively knew something was off, and ran into my student’s mom in a Family to Family class 10 years later, confirming my hunch.
At one school where I taught (inner city, 2nd and 4th grade) approximately 5 of the 30 students had major issues at 8 years of age (and many of the teachers had cancer.) One child would cower every time I approached. One boy slept the whole day because at his house at night there was so much partying going on he couldn’t sleep. Another boy had to step over two dead people shot in a drive-by to come to school. The majority of students had Attention Deficit–one of the types. How can anybody learn in this environment? These kids were just trying to survive. The teachers were overwhelmed and literally sick over it.
Teaching is an all-consuming job. I didn’t even feel like I could do it well AND raise two children, an infant and a teen. That’s why I stopped. I remember the feeling of overwhelm, though, to this day. Depending on the culture of the school, sometimes one more thing on the teacher’s plate just feels like too much.
But teachers believe in education. (At least the good ones do.) That’s why I’m so excited to be part of an in-service this week to educate teachers in Shasta County about children with mental illness. NAMI has put together a stellar program in Parents and Teachers as Allies which has been a lifesaver for educators across the country. Teachers won’t walk away with a huge “to do list” or new (old) learning theory (Hello, Core), but instead will integrate what they already know works and doesn’t work. The good ones will catch the missing link that will help them understand, help them catch a glimpse of the challenges of raising and loving a child with mental illness. They will think twice before blaming the parents and empathize with them in a way they couldn’t possibly have done before. This will empower them to create empathetic classrooms where classmates can learn that the kid they’re calling “crazy” could be them. And in this impact, lives will be changed. Quite probably saved.
That’s my dream anyway. Eating the elephant one bite at a time.