Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Get Families on Board to Navigate Mental Health Issues: Communication between School and Families Is Difficult in a Business-as-Usual Situation, but, When a Mental Health Issue Is Involved, Teachers Must Be Especially Careful to Observe Best Practice S

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Get Families on Board to Navigate Mental Health Issues: Communication between School and Families Is Difficult in a Business-as-Usual Situation, but, When a Mental Health Issue Is Involved, Teachers Must Be Especially Careful to Observe Best Practice S

Article excerpt

"You are hurting my child!" he shouted, red-faced, furious, and pointing his finger about an inch from my face. I (Kathleen Minke) was a young school psychologist, unaccustomed to such emotional intensity in an IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting. Discussing eligibility for services for a student with "emotional disturbance" can be a delicate process. But this felt very personal. I felt blamed, defeated, and angry. I believed that this child had been hurt by many of the people in the room, but surely I was not one of them. And, although the father's ire was directed at me, everybody there was angry with somebody else and blamed them for the problems.

How did we get to this point where productive problem solving was pretty much impossible? How did our shared goal of this child's success become lost in our inability to communicate? What I learned that day became a cornerstone of my professional life: Effective family-school collaboration is essential for promoting student success at school, but collaborative relationships must be proactively developed and intentionally nurtured. These relationships are particularly critical when children are struggling behaviorally or emotionally.

What do youth who abuse drugs, attempt suicide, experience abuse, are anorexic or bulimic, and suffer from anxiety, obsessions, or compulsions have in common? They all go to school. As noted elsewhere in this special issue, large numbers of school-age children have significant mental health needs, but relatively few receive treatment. When children do receive treatment, it is likely to be at school (Farmer et al., 2003). Although data are limited, interventions appear to be more effective when parents participate (Shucksmith, Jones, & Summerbell, 2010).

We know that contemporary families are stretched thin. Large numbers of children and their families cope with chronic stressors such as poverty, discrimination and racism, and family instability. Add to this the stress of having a child with behavioral and mental health needs, and even the most functional families can be overwhelmed. In the IEP meeting example above, the family had been attempting to manage their child's explosive behaviors for years with limited success. They felt blamed, isolated, and ineffective, which strained not just the relationship between the family and school but also relationships within the family. For many families, too little time, too little money, and too few social supports interfere with parents' ability to actively participate, even when they want to do so.

School-based mental health providers confront a number of challenges when they try to engage families in school-based services.

* Parents' views about their roles in schooling

Families, with unique histories and cultures, differ substantially in how they view their roles with respect to schooling. Some parents believe schools are responsible for academic learning, while families are responsible for moral education. They may be puzzled by requests to help with homework. For other parents, school is a safe place for their children while they focus on providing the family's basic needs; requests to participate at school may be seen as interference with other important parenting obligations. Even when parents believe that engaging with their children academically is part of their role, they may not believe that they have the necessary skills to do so effectively.

* Parents' views about mental health services

Families also differ in how they perceive emotional and behavioral problems in their children, as well as the extent to which professional help is acceptable. Some are reluctant to inform the school about their child's mental health problem for fear of stigma. Others view mental health issues through a faith-based or cultural lens. We have worked with families who saw their child's Down Syndrome as a punishment from God, and others who saw their child's disability as a divine gift. …

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