Special education was intended to help a small percentage of students who have disabilities that significantly impair learning and make it impossible for them to succeed in a general education classroom.
Providing IEP classifications to every struggling student, even when they don’t meet the criteria for classification, is a disservice to students and also puts increased stress on school staff and budgets. This is increasingly happening with students suffering from mental health issues.
In this article, we’ll examine the costs of growing IEP classifications, what types of mental illness may require classification (and which may not), and alternative ways to help students and support school staff at the same time.
The growing rate of IEP classifications and the costs for students and schools
Parental attitudes toward special education have shifted dramatically in recent years. There was once a stigma and parents often resisted placing their children in special education. Today, growing numbers of parents see IEP classification as a way to gain advantages and individualized attention for their students.
Teachers also contribute to the problem by inappropriately recommending students for IEP classifications who are not significantly disabled. This often happens when a student has a learning style that differs from the teacher’s, or exhibits behavioral or emotional problems that disrupt the classroom.
When schools bow to pressure to classify students who don’t truly need it, it hurts everyone.
When we over-classify, we dilute the interventions and make them less effective for students. The more needy students don’t get the individualized attention they need to succeed. And for higher-functioning students, we run the risk of adjusting their environment so much that they can’t function in the “real world” when interventions are no longer available.
The costs to schools are obvious:
- Budgets stretched to the breaking point
- Lack of funding for other critical needs
- Lack of qualified staff to support the struggling students
- Staff burnout and high turnover rates
How can schools make the right decisions about IEP classifications, especially for students with mental health issues?
When special education classification may be needed for mental health issues
Not every student who is having trouble needs the level of intervention provided with IEP classification.
Students struggle in school for a variety of reasons, including emotional issues. Not all of these problems meet the criteria for classifying a student, even when a student has received a diagnosis of mental illness.
Certain types of mental health issues often cause students to have a level of disability that requires classification. For example:
- Biochemical neurological problems
- Emotional trauma
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
- Emotional regulation issues
Severe disorders like these frequently cause a level of disability that requires a high level of intervention. These students often can’t absorb, process, analyze, and synthesize information like other students in a general education classroom. They have difficulty passing assessments. They struggle to function in a classroom. And they often have excessive absences. These students fall to the lower end of the bell curve of student abilities in the classroom.
On the other hand, some of the most common mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, may not require special education classification. Even though students are certainly struggling, their abilities may be much higher than their performance indicates. We can often help these students and improve their academic success through counseling and other types of support.
These general observations are not hard-and-fast rules. Every student is different and some with severe anxiety may require classification, while others dealing with emotional trauma may be able to succeed without it. The important thing is to accurately assess each student’s needs and abilities, and have resources in place to support students who are struggling but don’t have significant impairment.
So, what types of support can schools put into place to help students while lowering IEP classification rates?
The alternative to IEP classification for students with emotional and behavioral issues
School-based mental wellness support fills the gap to serve students who struggle to succeed on their own, but are not impacted enough for special education classification.
What types of support do students need?
- A “safe space” where they can go when in crisis or struggling emotionally
- Counseling from a trusted and qualified person who understands the issues they face and uses evidence-based interventions to help them overcome obstacles to learning
- A mediator who can intervene on their behalf with parents, teachers, and other students
With access to these supports, students gain:
- A “reality check” that puts their struggles into perspective and gives them motivation and hope
- The ability to reduce the “noise” of intrusive thoughts and emotions, which increases their executive functioning and their ability to learn
- The tools and coping strategies they need to succeed both in school and in life
These are some ways that schools can meet these needs and provide mental health support services to students (and even to staff members who may need emotional support).
Bringing licensed clinicians into your school to counsel struggling students is an effective and efficient way to get help quickly to the students who need it most. An embedded clinician gets to know your school, your staff, your students, and their families, and becomes a trusted part of the school community.
The downside is, hiring outside clinicians can be expensive and not every school or district has the funding. However, there are grants and other types of funding available if you know where to look.
Training and coaching for child study team
Chances are, you have talented school psychologists, guidance counselors, social workers, and other CST members on staff who can learn to provide quality mental health counseling. This can be a much more affordable way for a school district to provide mental health support. At the same time, you can build a mental wellness climate and culture in the district and the entire community.
Certain school staff members likely already have some knowledge about mental health issues, along with the desire to help students. However, they may benefit from additional specialized training to learn things like best practices for dealing with school refusal, which is a growing problem and one of the most challenging to solve.
School staff who are counseling students can also benefit from regular coaching from expert mental health clinicians who can advise them on how to handle difficult cases.
Staff professional development
For school-based mental wellness support to be effective, everyone has to be on the same page. Chances are, your teaching staff may benefit from mental health workshops to learn how to recognize the signs of mental illness, and how to respond appropriately.
How to respond to legal action related to classification
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, schools are facing mounting pressure from parents to classify students. Increasingly, this can lead to legal action from parents.
School leaders need to learn how they can prepare for these cases, as well as what they can do to prevent them and stay out of court to begin with.