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Virginia Journal of Education

Which Me Are You Teaching?

Helping students who struggle with mental illness.

By Melodie M. Henderson

One ordinary day as I began to teach a grammar lesson, an out-of-the-ordinary thing happened. One of my students stood and walked toward the classroom windows, making what started as a whimper but quickly evolved into an all-out bawl.

“No, I made a mistake, give me my soul back!” he shouted. “I don’t need to go!”

I slowly moved toward him, as I tried to maintain order among the other students, and asked him to whom was he speaking.

“Satan!” he responded, still crying. “Don’t you see him standing there in his red cape?”

Peering out the window, I saw nothing but clouds and raindrops trickling down the glass. Yet, what he was seeing was real. It was so real that as he continued to sob, he also began to explain that the night before, he’d made a deal with the devil, offering his soul if he could just get a chance to visit his mother, who lived in another state. Later that night, he felt he was told he would get that visit, but that morning while sitting in my class, Satan came to collect.  

Suddenly, I too began to “see” a fragmented view of Satan, and boldly told him he couldn’t have my student’s soul because he was protected by the teacher angels of the school. His soul belonged to us.

My student’s sobs began to soften as he looked at me and asked if what I was saying was true. I assured him it was, that he would be OK, and that Satan wasn’t going to bother him again. Although not completely convinced, he was able to pull it together enough to wipe his tears and return to his seat. I took a deep breath and returned to teaching the lesson.

As I looked at the faces sitting before me, I remember asking myself, “Who am I teaching?” 

That day wasn’t the first time I’d stepped into the world of a student having an irrational or non-lucid experience in the middle of instruction or during a less structured activity at school. I’ve come to anticipate occasional incidents like that, as I teach students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) partnered with either the diagnosis of a mental health or behavioral disorder. At times, these students can become so out of control they require placement in a more restrictive environment in order to achieve academic success.

However, I’ve learned ways to provide effective instruction by recognizing characteristics, mannerisms or behaviors indicative of possible mental illness or irrational or potentially volatile behavior. I’ve done this primarily through trial and error, assisted by an occasional workshop or professional development training, usually with no real follow-up or review.

In effort to rely less on trial and error, I began to research best practices, learning effective strategies and tried-and-true interventions on my own. I want to be the most effective special educator I can be.

Hence my journey began, and I studied numerous journals and websites of organizations dedicated to informing the public about mental illness. This helped me become more intuitive about students and their behaviors and mannerisms, but what I concluded is that there just isn’t enough beneficial information available to public school teachers. We’re responsible for not only educating all students, including those suffering from mental illnesses, but also for their safety.

So I gathered my research and developed a workshop entitled, “Which Me Are You Teaching?: A Look at Mental Illness in the Public School Classroom.” Does this cover all the bases anticipated from such a title? Of course not, but it does provide a starting point for necessary conversations about classrooms, for questions to be asked and possibly, just possibly, for some clear and helpful answers.  

The workshop is designed to provide insight on building rapport with students, along with implications for the classroom, strategies and accommodations, and some advocacy tips and resources. It’s all geared toward creating a better learning atmosphere for students identified with or who display behavioral characteristics related to mental illness.

I’ve had the opportunity to present the workshop at the VEA Instructional and Professional Development Conference, The SVEA Annual Conference, and the VCU-MERC (Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium) Conference, and participants have made comments such as “We really need this information,” “I’m going to ask my special education leaders about this,” “I wish I had this information last year (or last week),” and “Why don’t we get professional development like this?” There seems to be a real need for information on better meeting the needs of students who may become irrational while in our care.

As I said, this workshop merely scratches the surface of working with students dealing with a mental health disorder, and I don’t profess to be an authority on this vast topic. But I do know when our students cross the doors of our classrooms (with or without IEPs or 504s), if they’re suffering from mental illness, they deserve a fighting chance at a free, appropriate public education. Yet many of our practitioners know little about these students. Many standard interventions and strategies do not work for students suffering from mental illness, something our educational leaders need to wake up and acknowledge. There is a real urgency about this!

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), there are about 100,000 children and adolescents in Virginia who’ve been identified as having a serious emotional disorder. I’m going to conclude that not every one of those children and adolescents has an IEP or a 504 instructional plan to guarantee supportive services and/or accommodations. I am also going to conclude that not every child or adolescent suffering from mental illness has been identified and/or diagnosed. And NAMI backs me on those conclusions: It says almost one half of youth nationwide ages 8-15 with a mental illness received no mental health services in the previous year.

Those young people don’t receive their education on a secret island or in a protective bubble. In many cases, they’re sitting in classrooms across the country and here in Virginia, undetected, untreated and not properly served in our public schools. Practitioners sometimes have no idea who they’re teaching. What often seems like continuous belligerent, defiant or disengaged behavior could very well be indicative of a mental illness or emotional disorder. If educators were provided proper knowledge, training and resources to recognize and effectively address such behaviors, it’s possible a few  things could happen: young people with mental illness could be identified sooner; proactive strategies could be developed for youth who have already been identified; safer and more effective interventions could be used by teachers and other educators; and there could be fewer interruptions in instruction. Educators would also feel more informed and empowered to manage students who suffer from mental illness or display irrational characteristics, instead of being afraid of them or of what they may do.
On a more positive note, I’m encouraged to know of two very important developments to address this issue in Virginia’s public schools. One is that there are school-based teams that have been trained in Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines (V-STAG). Team members have learned to use a context-sensitive, problem-solving approach instead of the more traditional, punitive approach of zero tolerance.

The other is that last October, Governor McAuliffe announced federal grants to improve school safety and mental health services for students. One is called “Project Aware” and is already being piloted in Montgomery, Pulaski and Fairfax counties. This grant continues through 2018. It’s good to know that our state isn’t turning a blind eye to the needs of mentally ill students.

Although this is a good start, it still isn’t enough. It still does not provide the practitioner with necessary tools and/or interventions for use in daily instruction. There is an urgent need for practical strategies and interventions to address the issues surrounding students with mental illness. 

Henderson, a member of the Chesterfield Education Association, teaches in the Intensive Day Program at Manchester High School. For information about her workshop, contact her at


What to Look For

Warning signs of mental illness in young people, from Mental Health America (

In Adults, Young Adults and Adolescents:
     • Confused thinking
     • Prolonged depression (sadness or irritability)
     • Feelings of extreme highs and lows
     • Excessive fears, worries and anxieties
     • Social withdrawal
     • Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
     • Strong feelings of anger
     • Strange thoughts (delusions)
     • Seeing or hearing things that aren't there (hallucinations)
     • Growing inability to cope with daily problems and activities
     • Suicidal thoughts
     • Numerous unexplained physical ailments
     • Substance abuse

In Older Children and Pre-Adolescents:
     • Substance abuse
     • Inability to cope with problems and daily activities
     • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
     • Excessive complaints of physical ailments
     • Changes in ability to manage responsibilities - at home and/or at school
     • Defiance of authority, truancy, theft, and/or vandalism
     • Intense fear
     • Prolonged negative mood, often accompanied by poor appetite or thoughts of death
     • Frequent outbursts of anger

In Younger Children:
     • Changes in school performance
     • Poor grades despite strong efforts
     • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
     • Excessive worry or anxiety (i.e. refusing to go to bed or school)
     • Hyperactivity
     • Persistent nightmares
     • Persistent disobedience or aggression
     • Frequent temper tantrums



NEA Can Help
For helpful resources on protecting the emotional, psychological and social well-being of your students, visit NEA’s Healthy Futures website at


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