5 Things to Consider When Your Child with Depression Needs an IEP

Date Posted

September 5, 2023


Kayla Mason

Mother and Son at the Kitchen Table Doing Homework

Navigating the education system when your child has special needs associated with depression can be challenging. Children with disabilities who need special education services to progress are eligible for an Individualized Education Plan* (IEP). An IEP is a program developed for a child with a disability to address their specific educational needs. You can work with your child’s team of teachers, mental health professionals, and school staff to help your child grow. Antione Johnson is a former military instructor turned special needs teacher for a charter school in Colorado. Here, he shares things to consider when your child with depression needs an IEP.

1. Coping and Self-Regulation Skills

Learning and utilizing self-regulation and coping skills, essential to every child’s success, can be especially difficult for kids with depression. Johnson suggests a variety of emotional regulation skills, such as visualization, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation, that can help your child learn to manage their emotions and behavior both in and out of the classroom. Development of these skills may fit in the IEP.

2. Academic Accommodations

For students with depression who need academic support services, Johnson believes “a solid communication culture between parents and teachers is a must.” Academic accommodations may allow for more time for testing, more bathroom breaks, and fidget objects and beverages for self-soothing. Johnson suggests including language to allow your student to “check in with a trusted adult to monitor emotional regulation” during school hours.

3. Interpersonal and Communication Skills

Children with depression may have difficulty communicating what they need. They may worry they are a burden to others or fear they will be judged or rejected. Add interpersonal and communication goals into the IEP to foster the development of these skills.

Practical communication skills that can help your child with depression include active listening, expressing themselves clearly and respectfully, and asking for help when needed. With practical communication skills, a child will feel more confident when seeking support and will be able to connect more comfortably with others.

Interpersonal relationships require skills that can be cultivated with support from home and school. Ask about interpersonal goals, and the skills needed to achieve them, that make sense for your child.

4. Access to Counseling and Support System

It is best (and required by law) to keep your child in the classroom when possible. This helps create a sense of community that can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, which are intertwined with, and may exacerbate, depression. Being in the classroom allows children to maintain their academic progress and continue to learn alongside their peers.

Have a plan in place for when your child needs a break, additional support, or accommodations in the classroom. Access to a school counselor, social worker, special education coordinator, or other school support can be vital for a child who has exhausted the calming techniques that usually reduce their distress. Incorporate flexibility to leave the classroom and seek support into the IEP.

5. Navigating the classroom

Physical location in the classroom makes a difference for many children’s ability to learn and succeed in school. If appropriate, advocate for your child to sit close to a teacher or near the door. Sitting near an exit may allow them to leave for support or breaks without disrupting the class. It can also bring less attention to your child when leaving for mental health reasons, helping to reduce a feeling of “otherness.” For other kids, sitting in front of the teacher can reduce distractions and improve concentration, which is often difficult with depression.

When your child’s mental health condition qualifies as a disability and they need special education services to receive a free, appropriate public education, an IEP can greatly improve your child’s experience at school. If they’re a right fit for your child, advocate for services that teach coping and communication skills, provide academic accommodations, facilitate access to a support system, and implement preferential seating to benefit your child’s experience within the school system.

* If your child is not eligible for an IEP under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), they may be entitled to services under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Learn more from the U.S. Department of Education.