As a special education teacher with over fifteen years’ experience, I know that educators affect thousands of students throughout their careers. Of those thousands, one in five kids lives with a mental health disorder, and one in twenty has severe emotional disabilities.
As Hiam Ginott wrote several decades ago in his book Teacher and Child, the teacher is “the decisive element in the classroom.” If the teacher is uneducated about the needs of students with mental health disorders, there is a greater chance that those students will not graduate high school.
The Teacher’s Guide to Student Mental Health, written by child and adolescent psychiatrist William Dikel, is a comprehensive introduction to children’s mental health for educators with specific, evidence-based strategies.
Easy to read, Dikel’s book encompasses the basics of psychiatric diagnoses and educational eligibilities, including IEPs, and tips about behavioral modification techniques as well as coping strategies for students and families.
While Dikel’s book is worth reading cover to cover, it can also be used as a handy reference guide for topic-specific questions about students with an emotional disturbance (ED) eligibility.
As someone who has taught many students with ED, I found Dikel’s in-depth discussion of the clinical-behavioral spectrum especially helpful. The difference between willful and volitional behavior and clinical, illness-related symptomology is a difficult concept for most educators to grasp. Here, Dikel opens with a clear explanation of the difference between antisocial behavior and symptoms of behavior that relate to illness.
At the same time, the book does not shy away from discussing maladaptive behaviors and behaviors of children who have conduct disorders, or those with oppositional defiance.
After eight accessible chapters on the major mental health issues a teacher is likely to encounter, The Teacher’s Guide reviews how educators and schools can meet the challenges of students’ mental wellbeing.
“Students who have mental health disorders are clearly disabled, many more so than those who have other medical disabilities,” Dikel writes. And, he explains, “many children and adolescents would rather appear to be bad than sick.”
Just as stigma is prevalent in adult circles, it is prevalent among children.
Dikel also writes about the special needs of the teacher. Teachers of students with emotional disturbance generally burn out after a few years. And their high stress levels can be exacerbated when their own mental health care needs go unrecognized.
I know firsthand the difficulty of instructing students with ED — as well as the extreme self-care required. In order to be constantly on-point in a self-contained classroom with six to sixteen students, all of whom suffer from depression, anxiety, mania, or psychosis, you have to take care of yourself.
Because mental illness is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis or eligibility, there is no way to say whether an individual child will need minimal support in a general education environment or, instead, a self-contained classroom. Luckily, Dikel recognizes this. While some may want a simple step-by-step guide, Dikel artfully avoids that trap, acknowledging that each situation is complex. He also reviews several models of school-based mental health services — and that makes his book useful to program and district administrators in addition to teachers.
Children are individuals with individual needs. A multidisciplinary team must collaborate to design a plan that will meet each student at their level. Dikel’s text is a good place to start.
The Teacher’s Guide to Student Mental Health
W. W. Norton & Company, July 2014
Hardcover, 320 pages