Signs of Mental Illness in the Elementary School Student

People will define in their own minds what constituted a mental illness in a child, so let’s just say, for argument’s sake, that a mental illness in a child is something that affects the child’s mental health and stability. To me, that seems the best way for a teacher to spot the sings of a child who needs intervention to become mentally well or at least give the child the ability to function in our society.

As a special education teacher for twenty five years, it was my job to spot these sings and symptoms when evaluating the need for special intervention, but it’s important to note that any child at any time can display one or even a few of these signs due to a variety of reasons, but should not be considered, “mentally ill.”

That’s exactly why I believe teachers within the regular classrooms should be educated more throughly on what constitutes, “disability and mental illness.” I’ve seen children who have been accused of, “being lazy,” when in fact the child had a disability that prevented him from learning. There were also times when a child has been misunderstood as being, “ADD,” who was simply unruly. We must be careful of labeling a child. As a teacher of the disabled who became disabled as well, what label we are given is something we must live with for our entire lives. With this in mind, I’ll list the most common forms of true mental illness that you might see in your classroom if you teach for years to come.

What seems abnormal to you?

It’s my opinion that there are certain biological reasons and birth defects that may seem to be mental instability, but aren’t. For example, a Down’s Syndrome child will appear to be different, mentally, than the others, but he might be mentally sound and more mentally sound than one would think his intellectually ability would allow.

A child with cerebral palsy more often than not has a mind which is mentally well and stable, so be careful that you are aware of the difference between a disability and a mental instability. Children who are mentally ill will display the signs in their daily life with struggles that seem too insurmountable to survive. Here is a list of the childhood illnesses I’ve personally seen in my special education classrooms.

Childhood Schizophrenia:

The rarest on the list of mental illness in children, still this disease is devastating for the few who suffer from its effect.

When childhood schizophrenia begins very early, the disease often manifests itself gradually and builds up to the first psychotic episode. Early signs of the disease may include social withdrawal, disruptive behaviors, academic problems, speech or language problems, or other developmental delays. These early signs aren’t specific to childhood schizophrenia and may indicate a variety of other conditions.

* The child might hear voices and/or talk to those voices as if someone is actually there. They may hallucinate.

* The may seem to have imaginary beliefs that are obviously beyond normal childhood fantasy or imagination.

* Their thinking is disorganized and irrational.

* They misbehave in irrational ways and one can’t predict what will trigger a misbehaver.

* Physical mobility which is inappropriate, such as too inactive or mobility with no apparent purpose.

* Vacant emotional expression and difficulty relating to others.

These signs could also be the symptoms of Autism or other disorders, but when a teacher sees the signs, the child needs intervention, no matter what the cause may be, so please intervene.


According to information from the Mayo Clinic site:

“Autism is a brain disorder that is associated with a range of developmental problems, mainly in communication and social interaction. The first signs of this disorder typically appear before age 3. Although treatment has improved greatly in the past few decades, autism cannot be cured. It persists throughout life. It’s estimated that three to six of every 1,000 children have autism. A recent increase in the number of autism cases in the United States may be the result of improved diagnosis and changes in diagnostic criteria.”

If a child is Autistic, he may develop normally for the first few years of life and then suddenly become less and less responsive to other people and even his parents.

1. Social signs:

Fails to respond to his or her name
Makes no eye contact.
Appears not to hear.
Resists cuddling and holding.
Appears unaware or not to care about other’s feelings.
Seems to prefer playing alone and self stimulating behaviors.

2. Language

Speech and language decline instead of progressing.
Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm and may use a singsong voice or robot-like speech.
Can’t start a conversation or keep one going.
May repeat words or phrases verbatim, but doesn’t understand how to use them.

3. Behavior

Self stimulates by rocking, spinning or hand-flapping.
Develops specific routines or rituals.
Becomes disturbed at the slightest change in routines or rituals.
Moves constantly.
May be fascinated by parts of an object, such as the spinning wheels of a toy car.
May be unusually sensitive to light, sound and touch.

Autism seems to be on the rise in our society. It’s a devastating disease that hides the child inside, so if a child in your classroom is Autistic, you will surely know it, but the truth is that there are various levels of autism and some can be mainstreamed into the regular classroom.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: (ADHD)

A chronic disorder that affects millions of American children, and can persist into adulthood.
The signs include inattention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior, which can and often does effect every aspect of the child’s life. Children with ADHD often struggle with low self-esteem, have problems making friends and do poorly in school.

Specifically, the signs of ADHD will be at least a few if not all of these:

* Fails to pay attention.

* Trouble sustaining attention, even with things he enjoys doing.

* Fails to follow through or finish a task.

* Frequently loses things.

* Forgetful

If a child in your classroom has ADHD, his inattention and hyperactivity will be extreme. Some make the mistake of assuming every, “wild child,” is ADHD. That’s not true and when you have a true ADHD child in your classroom, it will be obvious to you.

Note: ADD is different from ADHD in that the ADD child will be overly distracted, but not necessarily hyperactive.

Bipolar Disorder:

The child with this mental illness will be high as a kite one moment and low the next. His mood swings affect his daily routine and he often disrupts your classroom. Anything can trigger a bi-polar episode. It’s also known as, “manic-depressive disorder.”

* Inflated self esteem
* Euphoria and extreme optimism
* Rapid speech, poor judgment and racing thoughts.
* easily distracted and difficulty concentrating

The child with the mental illness of bi-polar disorder is more likely to abuse drugs in adolescence and adulthood, due to the fact that the same drugs that make one person feel high and pumped with be the drug that makes the bi-polar feel, “normal.” Early intervention and possible medication can prevent the bi-polar child from self destruction.

To Conclude:

Other, more easily and clearly identified childhood mental illness include, depression, anxiety disorders, compulsive-impulsive disorders and phobias. The basic thing to keep in mind is how the child uses his mind to interact, learn and perform in your classroom. When one or all of these abilities seem to be unstable or disabled, it’s wise to intervene by addressing the issues with the appropriate people. The school diagnostician, the counselor, the school psychologist and of course, the parents.

Please note: Parents can often be in denial when it comes to their child’s mental health, so be cautiously optimistic with them when you discuss their child’s issues in the classroom. Guide them gently, with a hopeful attitude, to the appropriate school personnel who can help.