Question: My child’s school told me that because he does well in school and makes good grades, and is on medicine to manage his mood episodes, he doesn’t qualify for a 504 plan or IEP. Do children who are stable and live with a mood disorder qualify for an IEP or 504 plan?
Children living with mental illness know the ups and downs that come with living with a chronic illness. Parents and their children know the one consistent thing about living with mental illness is that it’s inconsistent. There can be good times, not so good times, and very very bad times, all of which can last anywhere from days, to weeks, to months. For those individuals who have been diagnosed with a mood disorder in childhood, they are likely to experience more frequent mood episodes, and while it may appear as if the student with bipolar is doing well because they “look good” and are interacting with peers, they may in fact be masking. Masking is a term that refers to the act of camouflaging true emotions or mental health symptoms in an effort not to disappoint or frustrate others. It’s practiced frequently by people living with mood disorders.
A 504 Plan or Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a necessity for students living with mood disorders due to the inconsistent nature of mood episodes.
There is strong evidence that mood episodes (including major depressive episodes and hypomanic or manic episodes) impact working memory, making the process of memory and serial recall very difficult. These and other effects of a mood episode can last long after the episode has transitioned into a more stable state (known as euthymic or the state of living without mood disturbances). Medications used to manage mood disorders can have side effects which impact processing, cognition, and sleep-wake cycles. There is also a genetic correlation between bipolar, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, as well as auditory and visual processing disorders all of which significantly impact learning.
This means students will need accommodations and modifications to how they access their education in order to help them meet their academic needs. It’s important that these accommodations and modifications are in place because students living with mood disorders such as bipolar often have difficulty identifying and verbalizing their needs in the moment. This can be the result of masking, anxiety, medication side effects, a comorbid disorder, or the lasting effects of mood episodes.
The bottom line is that children with mood disorders are highly complex. Even when moods are managed well by medications there are many other factors to consider. Good grades and completing homework assignments on time isn’t a good forecast on what to expect in the near future when it comes to mental illness. What a student with a mood disorder was capable of yesterday isn’t a good forecast of how capable they will be tomorrow.
504 plans and IEPs create an equitable educational environment where each individual student, living with their specific conditions, can succeed. Additionally, the goal is for the parents, teachers, and students to all partner together to improve educational outcomes for students living with disabilities. These interventions don’t offer students with disabilities advantages over other students who don’t have a 504 plan or IEP. These federally protected tools allow all students to exercise their right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and support them to be as successful as they possibly can be given their biological and mental health challenges.
Parents are protecting their children’s right to an appropriate education as guaranteed by the federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) when advocating for an appropriate 504 and/or IEP. Bipolar and other mental illnesses are often invisible disabilities, but they are still a federally protected category under the IDEA, with recognition requirements equal to physical disabilities such as blindness or deafness. Even though people can’t tell by looking at someone if they are living with bipolar, how much they struggle, or their level of functioning on any given day it doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling. When a child lives with a mood disorder and has the support they need, then they have the right tools in place to make success in school possible.
If you’re struggling to have your child’s needs met by their school you’re not alone. CMHRC’s School Advocacy Program provides one on one support to families as they attempt to navigate the process of developing and implementing IEPs and 504 Plans. You can read more about our service and make an appointment to discuss your needs right from our website.