Students collaborating

Written by Director of Special Services Matt Cretsinger

In education, the mental well-being of students goes hand in hand with their academic success. Nowhere is this more evident than in the relationship between mental health support and special education services. Across school districts in Iowa, educators are recognizing the critical intersection of these two areas in providing comprehensive support for students with educational disabilities.

Identification and holistic intervention design are cornerstones of this collaborative approach. Educators' knowledge and their ability to observe behavioral and academic patterns that may signal the potential for underlying mental health concerns. By identifying these concerns, they can initiate a collaborative process that involves mental health professionals, students, and families to provide timely and tailored interventions.

At the heart of this collaboration lie individualized plans of support. In special education, Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are developed to address the unique needs of each student with an educational disability that affects their ability to successfully access the general education curriculum. Similarly, mental health professionals develop personalized treatment plans that consider the specific challenges and strengths of each student grappling with mental health issues. When working collaboratively, students’ holistic needs can be supported through their IEPs to address both their academic difficulties, behavioral difficulties, and underlying mental health conditions that may be contributing to their overall challenges in the classroom. 

Central to both mental health support and special education is a commitment to inclusive environments. The federal law, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) directs schools to include students with educational disabilities to the maximum extent appropriate. It also reinforces that special education students are general education students first and foremost, and therefore their IEP should be designed with highly inclusive practices. Inclusive practices foster a sense of belonging and acceptance, which are foundational to both academic achievement and mental well-being. This lays the groundwork for holistic growth and success by creating nurturing spaces where every student feels valued and supported.

Furthermore, trauma-informed practices play a pivotal role in this collaborative effort. Many students in special education may have experienced some form of chronic stress and/or trauma, which can profoundly impact their mental well-being. By incorporating trauma-informed approaches into educational services, educators and mental health professionals ensure that their interventions are sensitive to the effects of trauma and how it affects students’ success in the classroom.

Skill-building and coping strategies are also integral components of this collaborative endeavor. Educators and mental health professionals work hand in hand to equip students with the skills they need to navigate academic challenges, manage stress, and cultivate positive relationships. By fostering these essential skills, they empower students to thrive academically and emotionally.

In essence, the collaboration between mental health support and special education services represents a commitment to the holistic well-being of every student in every classroom. By leveraging their respective expertise and resources, educators and mental health professionals create a continuum of support that addresses students' academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs. Through this collaborative effort, students have the highest likelihood of overall success in the classroom and in life.