Wednesday / May 29

Common Mental Health Diagnoses in Children – and How You Can Help

This year, on my end of the year survey/needs assessment, I asked teachers what topics they wanted more information on related to professional development. The three most requested topics that came up were behavior plan creation and implementation, mental health diagnoses in children, and classroom culture. In preparation for the upcoming professional development sessions, I will be covering each of the topics on the blog in my Summer PD Series. Today’s topic is Common Mental Health Diagnoses seen in children. Next week is Behavior Improvement Plans. Happy reading!

According to WebMD, nearly 5 million children each year are diagnosed with some form of mental illness in the United States. That equates to about 20% of kids or in an average classroom of 30, as many as 6 students having a diagnosable mental illness. These diagnoses can dramatically impact both the individual student’s success, but also the overall classroom function. While neither diagnosis nor treatment of mental illness in children is the role of the classroom teacher or school counselor, providing appropriate support for these students can have a positive impact on the school environment on a whole. Below are several common diagnoses that can be seen in schools and some ways that school personnel can help.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

As the most common behavioral/mental health diagnosis in children, ADHD can also be misunderstood and hard to manage. Because of symptoms like inattention, hyperactivity, disorganization, and impulsivity, ADHD can be a highly visible and distracting diagnosis for classroom teachers to manage.  Some kids also display daydreaming or attention-seeking behaviors. Other common symptoms seen are conflict seeking, low self-esteem, poor academic performance, and difficulty in peer interaction.

Medication can be an effective method of management, but many parents are reluctant due to side effects such as low appetite and personality changes. Fortunately, according to there are many common accommodations that can be used at home and in the classroom. Some effective strategies are:

Easily distracted or misbehaves Preferential seating near teacher or strong student
Incomplete assignments Break larger assignments into smaller pieces; pair written and oral assignments
Disorganized Use color coded binders or accordion files to keep papers together
Trouble sitting still Use rubber bands for feet fidgeting or allow to stand during lessons; movement breaks
Social interaction difficulty Compliment and/or reward positive behavior


Although childhood fears are common, when typical fears or worries become overwhelming, anxiety can be diagnosed. The symptoms of anxiety in children can range from daydreaming and avoidance to somatic or body discomfort like headaches or stomach aches. While anxiety can be a reaction to traumatic experiences, it is very often genetically linked, as parents who worry often have children who worry.

Anxiety in children is rarely treated with medication, however, therapeutic interventions can be very helpful in teaching children coping skills. has a wonderful printable for ways to help anxious children (pin here).  A few of my favorites, as a mom of kids with anxiety, are:

  • Respect and validate the child’s feeling by identifying and normalizing
  • Brainstorm solutions for the child’s concerns; talking through problems can keep them from growing within their head
  • Look for safe ways to help the child be brave; facilitate mediation of conflicts without solving them for the child


Although most people would be surprised, depression in children is unfortunately becoming more common. This is occurring for many reasons, one of which is the link between untreated anxiety and depression. Other causes are genetics, chemical imbalance, and exposure to traumatic experiences.  Depression is marked by a prolonged period of lowered moods, and symptoms can include sleep disturbances or increase in sleeping, loss of interest, difficulty concentrating, and defiance. Moody children can often appear rude or disruptive, but have an underlying diagnosis of depression which can only be seen with closer assessment.

Because occasional moodiness is common in children, particularly adolescents, it is important to note that symptoms must persist for more than two weeks to consider additional intervention. Depression, like anxiety, should be referred for medical attention as medication may be needed, but most experts agree therapeutic intervention is always appropriate with or without medication. Encouraging communication of feelings and normalizing emotional responses to stressors can be effective at supporting children.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

I will try to stay off my soap box on this one, however, post-traumatic stress, in my humble opinion, is one of the most ignored diagnoses in children. Once thought to be experienced only by soldiers who had experienced the trauma of war, we are now aware that there are many other sources of trauma that can lead to the symptoms of flashbacks, nightmares, physical reactions and avoidance of activities. Children may seem distracted or angry in class. According to, common causes of PTSD are violent attacks, exposure to fire, physical or sexual abuse, car crashes, or serious injury or death of a family member. Micro traumas like poverty, housing instability, and limited parental interactions that can be common amongst school age children.

Symptoms are often linked with exposure to activities or experiences that are reminiscent of the initial trauma, understanding the triggers is a great starting point for children. Challenges can come up when triggers are less obvious such as smells or sounds or when the trauma is so early that the child has limited conscious memories of the trauma. Many counselors have increased their knowledge of trauma informed therapeutic interventions, and teachers who incorporate trauma informed strategies can find these practices helpful as well.

Because the act of trauma exposure signals a loss of control, create a safe space in your classroom, where children are allowed to verbalize feelings and expect safety. A calm-down corner or soothing materials can be built in the classroom to help children feel more secure. Encourage self-regulation in a non-punitive format where children are rewarded for monitoring and positively expressing emotion. Tools like deep breathing and conflict resolution allow students to feel in control of their surroundings.

Keep in mind: What’s on your kids’ minds can make learning and living more enjoyable for all.

Written by

Calvalyn Day is author of Authentically Engaged Families. Calvalyn received her Masters in educational counseling from Indiana University, and has over 15 years of experience working in and around Pre-k-12th schools. As a parenting coach, with The Well Counseling and Consulting Group, she helps parents achieve harmony in the home. With students, she focuses on supporting holistic success. Calvalyn draws from personal experiences as a wife and mother of four daughters. Please connect with Calvalyn on her blog,, on Facebook and via Twitter @IndyParentCoach.


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