Talking to your child’s school: a guide for parents living with mental illness

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource was developed to explain what help schools and early learning services (ELS) may be able to provide their children with while they are experiencing mental illness, including how to approach the school/ELS and what to tell them.


Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. For the purposes of easy reading, the term ‘parent’ encompasses the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, as well as individuals who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child.

Talking to your child’s school or early learning service

As a parent experiencing mental illness it can sometimes be tricky to navigate your family’s needs when you are busy concentrating on getting well yourself. This resource aims to look at the benefits of talking to your child’s early learning service (ELS) or school about your mental health difficulties and how this can help both you and your child.

Attendance at school or ELS offers structure and routine which is important for all children regardless of their personal circumstances.  When you are experiencing mental health difficulties, maintaining a routine for your child is even more important. The stability provided by routine helps children to feel safe and secure by helping them know what to expect on a daily basis. Learn more about the importance of maintaining your child’s routines.

You might feel vulnerable about sharing personal details of your mental health difficulties, and it’s important that you feel comfortable with anything you decide to tell others. You don’t have to reveal anything you don’t want to but giving enough detail will allow the school or ELS to provide extra and appropriate support to your child.

Who should you approach?

Depending on your situation and how long your child has attended the school or ELS you may have a particular teacher or educator you have built a good relationship with. This may be a ‘home group’ teacher or sports coach. You could contact them by phone first and let them know that you are experiencing some difficulties at home. Ask if you can make a time to have a chat with them or a member of the school’s or ELS’s wellbeing team, which could include the school counsellor, psychologist, school nurse, room coordinator or director depending on the institution your child attends. This will ensure you are not interrupted and have enough time to talk things through as drop-off and pick-up times can be particularly busy for staff, and you may not have enough privacy either. You might like to have a family member or trusted friend attend the appointment with you to provide support.

What should you tell the school?

It can be helpful to tell the school or ELS staff about the following:

  • How the symptoms of your mental illness can affect your child. For example, your child may take on more household responsibilities to support your need to rest.
  • Your concerns about your child at school or ELS. For example, your child may need homework extensions or to make up lessons for classes missed; you may struggle to get to them to and from school or ELS; or you may be concerned about bullying.
  • Your family plan (or care plan). For example, what is the plan if you become unwell and are unable to do school-related activities like making your child’s lunch or taking them to the ELS or school and picking them up.
  • Who you are happy for your information to be shared with. For example, you may only want your child’s own teacher or educator to know, or you might be happy for other staff such as leadership, administration or OSHC (Out of School Hours Care) staff to be informed.

How can talking to the school help?

The benefits of talking with the school or ELS about your mental illness include:

  • The educator’s or staff awareness of your situation will mean they can better understand and respond if problems come up. For example, if your child is quieter than normal, is anxious or gets angry over small things they usually wouldn’t be upset about.
  • The teacher or educator can make an informed decision about how they respond to common situations. For example, if your child suddenly finds it hard to settle after drop-off, is late to school or ELS, can’t finish homework on time or needs access to a mobile phone.
  • It allows your child to discuss any concerns or worries they may have with a teacher or educator they trust, or the Wellbeing Officer. For example, if your child doesn’t fully understand what is happening at home, but you’ve told your child their teacher or educator is aware you are unwell, you have provided an extra trusted support person for them to speak with during this difficult time.

How can the school help?

Teachers and educators can be great help if they are able to work with you on providing the best support possible for your child. In turn their support may help you to focus on your recovery. It is also a great idea to ask them about the following:

  • School or ELS efforts to support children’s mental health. For example, do they have a wellbeing program or utilise the Be You educator support resources?
  • Services your child (or family) can access. For example, subsidised OSHC or support to pay school fees should being unable to work due to illness make it harder to keep on top of expenses.
  • Available counselling and support services for school aged children and how they can be accessed. For example, is there a Wellbeing Coordinator or school counsellor your child can regularly visit with if they need to?

How can you help the school support you?

Just like you would for a physical health issue, it can be helpful to outline your mental health difficulties and what you have in place in case of an emergency in an email to the school. This could include alternative contacts in an emergency where the school or ELS can’t get in touch with you or your child’s secondary contact (such as a partner). Your GP or mental health professional could help you decide the relevant information about your mental illness to include. A Care Plan template is available to assist with this process. Remember, you don’t have to include any details you would rather keep private. Making your wishes clear in a written plan is a good way of ensuring the school or ELS staff will provide the support your child needs. You can also add clear information about what you want the school or service to do – and what you don’t want them to do – to support your child.

This can include the following:

  • Descriptions of how your child reacts when their stress levels are high and what actions may help the teacher or educator to calm them. This may include contacting you if your child seems worried or anxious. If you need some help identifying strategies to calm your child during times of stress Triple P offers a free online course for parents called Fear Less.
  • Positive messages that you’d like people to highlight to your child during stressful times. For example, ‘Your parent is disappointed they can’t pick you up from school today – but as a treat… is coming to get you’.
  • The best way to keep the school or ELS informed about your family’s situation. This will help facilitate the most supportive approach to your child’s needs. For example, is there one person you can text or email should you have any concerns or if you need to ask a question?

What should I tell my child?

It’s important to let your school-aged children know you are speaking with their school about your mental health difficulties and how you’d like them to be supported.

Your child might have someone in particular that they would like you to talk to. It is also great for them to know that you are happy for them to talk to certain trusted adults at school or ELS about what is going on at home. Even though you might find this hard, it’s important to keep in mind the things that will help your child manage their daily lives. Reassure them that what you’ve told the school or ELS is private, and you hope it will help them. Remind your child that they can still speak to you, or talk to another trusted adult family member or friend you’ve identified together, if they are having troubles at school.

Let other trusted adults such as family members or friends who provide support for your children know you have spoken to the school or ELS about your mental health difficulties. It can be helpful and reassuring for them to know who else is aware of your situation and supporting you and your children.

Many children spend a large proportion of their time at school or at an ELS and it can be a great source of stability and care for them. By letting your child’s school or ELS know you are experiencing mental health difficulties you can work with them to ensure the best possible supports are in place to help your child navigate through what can be a tricky time for your whole family.

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