WASHINGTON — Cecelia Scheeler was just 4 years old when she started exhibiting odd behavior — throwing a fit when walking by dirty laundry or refusing to sit on certain furniture. She would wash her hands until they bled.
“My daughter’s behavior blew in like a storm overnight,” said Mary Ellen Pease of Towson.
Cecelia’s behaviors were impeding her ability to focus in her kindergarten class in the Baltimore County Public Schools. Her parents’ observations brought about a diagnosis of mental illness, and then the school’s cooperation allowed Cecelia to pursue an education accommodating her disabilities.
It’s that kind of attentiveness and cooperation between parents and schools that can make all the difference for students with mental health issues.
“Schools can play a great role because that’s where children can exhibit first signs,” said Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Child and Adolescent Action Center at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
There’s increased public awareness that mental illnesses can begin at an earlier age, Gruttadaro said, given the emphasis on mental health after recent tragedies like the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, which took the lives of 20 students and six staff.
Pease was surprised by how many friends were dealing with similar issues with their children when she called around to find a child psychologist for Cecelia. She considers herself lucky for identifying Cecelia’s obsessive-compulsive disorder early on, but not all families are so fortunate.
Maryland public schools have measures in place to detect and respond to mental health concerns.
“Sometimes there is a continuum. A teacher notices a student is withdrawn or not themselves, or the parents share that they go to therapy on a regular basis and what not,” said Sally Dorman, a psychological services specialist with the Maryland State Department of Education. Each student is a unique case, she said.
A school counselor or a school intervention team can be called in when a student exhibits unusual behavior, Dorman said. Support teams work with students, looking to find the source of the behavior and what function it serves.
Schools are required to make provisions for students with disabilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That law ensures equal access to education for students with disabilities. For Cecelia, that meant extra time on tests, priority seating in classrooms and help taking notes.
Continuing behaviors may trigger an even greater level of accommodation called an individualized education plan under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, said Kellie Anderson, a school psychologist with Anne Arundel County Public Schools. School systems across Maryland follow similar processes for assessing the need for and implementation of IEP’s.
Simply having a mental illness doesn’t qualify a student for special consideration, Anderson said.
“In order to qualify for an emotional disability, you have to have an emotional condition, which is to a marked degree, for a long period of time with educational impact,” she said. The educational impact must be substantial enough that it impedes a student’s classroom success.
A team of teachers, administrators and school psychologists works with parents to assess the student’s cognitive, emotional and behavioral functioning to determine the need for an IEP. IEP’s provide a number of services to students including therapy, psychological services and specialized instruction.
“We are obligated to change something in their program to help them be more successful,” Anderson said.
But the push for better mental health extends beyond just schools. Parents need to be aware of their rights and advocate for their children to receive the full benefit of accommodation plans, Gruttadaro said.
“Schools have a lot on their plates. It’s important for schools to partner with parents and with community mental health systems. Schools can’t do this alone.”
Pease’s advocacy as a parent was critical to her daughter’s success in the classroom. She made it a point to continuously remind teachers of her daughter’s accommodations and communicated with them regularly, to keep up to date with Cecelia’s progress, she said.
While school procedures for handling mental health issues are strong in theory, their implementation is more difficult, Pease said.
“It’s not always someone’s fault. Usually it’s just logistically difficult.”
In Cecelia’s case, it was important to keep her from feeling alienated from other students. Being given extra time to complete tests prompted scheduling issues as she entered middle school, when she had also been diagnosed with ADHD and generalized anxiety disorder. Finishing her exam after others had turned theirs in made her even more anxious.
More successful solutions were placing her at the front of a class or letting her take exams in a distraction-free environment.
“These are all accommodations that don’t change the content of what they’re learning. It just makes it easier for a student to be successful in the classroom,” Pease said.
Cecelia, now 19, is in her sophomore year at Oberlin College in Ohio majoring in political science. The struggles to advocate for accommodation, Pease said, never stop.