In the past few years, some parents have received a new item to put into their child-rearing tool kits: the school mental health day. Since 2018, more than a dozen states have passed or proposed bills that would allow school districts to treat days missed for mental health issues the same way they treat absences for physical health issues.
The question for parents will be deciding when and how to use the option.
Mental health days are a response to the mental health crisis among children, said Jill Cook, executive director of the American School Counselor Association. “Even before the pandemic, we knew that anxiety was on the rise,” she said. “And we also know that the pandemic just exacerbated some of that for many students.”
“The trick,” Cook added, “will be to ascertain whether it is truly a need to rest and recharge as opposed to school avoidance or test avoidance or something else that might be more significant going on where a mental health day is not the solution.”
Mary Alvord, a clinical psychologist in Rockville, Md., agrees that mental health days could trigger school avoidance. “Life is filled with discomfort and uncertainty, and we need to learn how to cope with that,” said Alvord, founder of Resilience Across Borders, a nonprofit group aimed at helping youth build resilience. She recommends that mental health days be devoted to that learning, rather than to retreating from whatever is troubling the child.
“If you have a sick kid complaining that their ear hurts, you’re not going to say, ‘Okay, just stay home.’ You’re going to say, ‘We need to go to the pediatrician,” Alvord said. Likewise, a mental health day should not be “a day to just stay in your room and play video games. There has to be an action plan,” such as talking to a counselor or therapist, working on calming strategies or challenging negative thinking with other scenarios that are more likely to happen.
How should parents decide?
Unfortunately, there’s no thermometer to tell you when a child is too stressed or anxious to go to school. Alvord said it’s about “closely observing them and listening to what they say and talking with them as much as they’re willing.” Ask questions such as, “What is making you think or feel like taking a day off would be helpful?” or, “Is there something pressing going on?”
Cook said parents will have to do a bit of detective work to see if the child is facing a test or hasn’t finished a project. “It’s really important that the parents and the young person can talk to one another and have these open and honest conversations when possible. And for parents to help students understand if it is an avoidance tactic, then they might not be doing themselves any favors by taking that day.”
Nekeshia Hammond, a clinical psychologist in Brandon, Fla., said she believes that, in middle and high school, “a lot of kids can say, ‘You know what, I need a break.’ And I think we need to really respect that.” She’s aware that some kids will try to take advantage of mental health days — but noted that there have always been children who try to game the system.
“The most important thing that we need to be thinking about is making sure that kids are learning how to take care of themselves,” Hammond said.
How to spend the day
“Our mental state is directly related to how we do in school. So, we don’t want to send a really distressed or really depressed kid if they can’t handle it,” Alvord said. “But you have to do something. It has to be proactive.”
Once you have a handle on what’s troubling a child or teen, work together on a coping plan. If a child is upset about a social interaction at school, the plan may be to go to see the school counselor together. If they were so anxious that they couldn’t sleep the night before, consider letting them sleep for a few hours before taking them in late — mental health days don’t need to last all day, Alvord noted.
During a mental health day, Hammond said, “It’s really important to engage in calming activities, whatever that looks like” for your child. Teaching them about mindfulness can be helpful, as can helping them process some upsetting experiences.
Parents can also introduce their children to mental health apps to help them regulate their emotions. Some suggestions are Three Good Things, Smiling Mind, and Breathe2Relax.
Finally, parents should be aware that they might need to help their child “transition from this mental health day to going back into the academic setting,” Hammond said. For example, if a child has anxiety, a parent can work with them on positive visualizations of being back in school. Or, said Alvord, a parent may drive them to school and do some calming exercises and reframing with them in the parking lot.
A new approach to mental health
One benefit of the concept of mental health days is that it gets parents, teachers and kids openly talking about the issue.
“It’s a really important statement for the states to be saying, ‘Hey, we care about your mental health,'” said Hammond, who hopes all states will eventually pass similar laws. “Because in my experience, some schools are so focused on academics they have completely forgotten that we need children to have positive mental health to work and perform academically.”
She praises the current de-emphasis on perfect attendance. “Missing a day or two of school is not necessarily going to have this horrendous impact academically when the goal is to make sure that this child is emotionally safe and emotionally healthy.”
Parents should also model emotionally healthy behavior for their children, Hammond said. “It’s okay to show your kids ‘I got really stressed out, but here’s what I’m doing about it. I’m trying to take care of myself.’ ”
In some cases, parents might share why they are taking a mental health day themselves. For example, after losing a loved one, a parent might say that instead of going to work, they “needed a day to grieve and be calm and celebrate this person,” Alvord said. The important thing, she added, is to communicate that you are doing something about the issueand not just taking to your bed.
The concept of mental health days is “a really positive thing for kids to be learning this early,” Hammond said. “This is a skill that kids need, not just in their childhood, obviously, but into their adult years. We’re giving them a gift of teaching them to take care of themselves.”
In fact, Hammond said she thinks parents should consider mental health days an option, even if they don’t live in a state that has passed legislation allowing them. “I’m a big advocate of doing what works for your child at the end of the day.”