« A New Way of Looking at Giftedness | Main | When Democracy Goes Wrong »

Wrestling with Bipolar Disorder


Bipolar disorder among adults is little understood; among juveniles, it's even more of a question mark. Newsweek has a long but engrossing article about a Massachusetts family and their life with their 10-year-old son, Max, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder as well as a host of other problems: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder. In his short life, he has been on 38 different psychoactive drugs.

Though the focus of the article is mostly on Max Blake's family life, his school life is mentioned as well. His behavior problems were so severe that he was suspended for months at a time. Finally, the district agreed to send him to the Manville School at a cost of $64,000 a year. Unfortunately, the program only goes to 10th grade.

What strikes me about any story like this is how alone parents often feel. This family lives in an urban area where they have access to some of the top medical minds and schools in the country, but they've still struggled for answers. What happens to families without ready access to those resources? Most of the time, they can only rely on the schools, which have their own resource problems. That's why I'm glad that more reporters are taking time to write the stories, so that parents can realize that they're not the only people going through these situations.


Wow, great article!!! Would you mind checking out mine and leave a comment telling me what you think? It's here: http://brainblogger.com/2008/05/27/the-bipolar-trend/

I have known and worked with a few students who have been diagnosed with Bi-polar disorder. It can be very frustrating and time-consuming for a teacher to deal with in a classroom filled with many students whose diagnosed disabilities are all considered to be the most important by each of their families. I can only begin to imagine how it must be to live with an individual who has this disorder! I only see the person a few hours a day, then I get a break...families and caregivers must learn a whole new lifetyle many times to accommodate those whose lives are overwhelmed by the side effects of this disorder. I salute those who are learning to deal with these challenges every day: the person who has been diagnosed and those with whom they live!

I have not yet had time to read the article in Newsweek, but I read the blog attached to this brief synopsis and found the postings quite interesting. The students with whom I now work are mostly those who have been diagnosed with mild learning disabilties or other health impairments such as ADD/ADHD. I do not like society's idea that they should just "buck up and deal with it," because that implies that they have chosen to make their disabilities part of their life. There truly are legitimate, unseen learning and behavior problems in our world, and no one in their right mind would CHOOSE to have one!

That said, I do not excuse ANYone from making an attempt to deal with their problems. To simply say, "I am this way so take it or leave it," is presumptuous. It may be that your specific challenge will require an in-depth diagnosis and medication of some type. It may simply be that therapy and self-monitoring lessons will be helpful. Whatever it is, it will take the support of those closest to the individual as well as the help of their educators to allow them to be successful.

My big concern is becoming the issue of a free, appropriate education. While we are devoting so much time to behavior incidents, in-class outbursts or uncontrolled behavior, and the emotional (and sometimes physical) toll such extreme disabilities require of teachers and students, what is happening to the right of the majority of students in our classrooms today to also be provided with a free, appropriate education? If someone is bullying, threatening, or harassng a student, we remove them from the classroom to provide a safe atmosphere for the rest of the group. If a student with a disability is doing the same thing and another classmate might be harmed, why is the law so far on the side of the disabled student that they are allowed to remain in the general education setting and disrupt learning and safety for everyone else? I think there needs to be more of a balance. ANYONE, or ANYTHING that interrupts the learning process needs to be given the chance to redirect their behavior or leave the room. It is not equitable to withold a safe education from 15 children just because one child with a disability is allowed to remain in the room disrupting the class and taking all of the teacher's attention from the goup as a whole. While some of these incidents can be turned into teachable moments regarding acceptance and tolerance, most of the times I have witnessed a total breakdown of safety and learning in the process. This does not help anyone, and sets the entire special education process and community up for very harsh judgement.

I agree with you, Martha, and go one step further -- Children who do not learn to manage themselves face a future life that will likely involve some level of institutional living, whether it be jail or group homes. There does indeed need to be some way to better educate and teach self-managing skills to children with handicapping conditions, but the balancing act has always been quite difficult. We have progressed from institutionalizing those children with conditions, to creating special schools and classrooms, to now demanding inclusion for all. IDEA recognized that children with handicapping conditions had unique strengths and weaknesses, to be addressed with an individualized program and with appropriate supports in place to provide an appropriate educational experience for this population of students. Unfortunately, we do prevent regular ed students from learning when we allow inclusion for students who cannot self-manage within that mainstreamed or included setting. We obviously have not reached that balance, have we?


As the parent of a child (now nearly adult) with bipolar disorder, I truly appreciate your empathy. While my son's case does not quite match that of the family in the article, there have been some dark and difficult times.

You ask "why is the law so far on the side of the disabled student that they are allowed to remain in the general education setting and disrupt learning and safety for everyone else?" Neither my experience, nor the data, support the balance being in favor of disabled students at the expense of all the others. The law was crafted to provide protections for students with disabilities some of whom initially were being denied any education at all.

With regard to discipline of students with disabilities the law requires many things--some of which are followed routinely. Despite this, students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended or expelled and the population within the juvenile justice system remains disproportionate with regard to disability.

While there is a process required to ensure that students with disabilities are not removed from educational services because of their disabling condition (which is where the mythology about non-removal springs), when push comes to shove there are still districts who bank on parents not knowing and racing through a manifestation determination to decide that the behavior was unrelated and proceding with a removal anyway. Then it is up to the family to slog through due process.

More important, however, are the requirements for disticts to employ principles of Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support to build meaningful behavior plans and systems to ensure that students are supported in learning "to control" themselves. This may mean changing the environment (moving the student across the room from the non-disabled kid who loves punching an arousable kid's buttons; modifying lessons to cut frustration and help ensure success). It may mean providing the kid with knowledge and support for what to do when things get emotionally out of hand for them (a safe retreat, contact with a safe adult, journaling or drawing). There are in fact people who have studied Applied Behavioral Analysis and are skilled in looking at behavior and making recommendations. While Functional Behavioral Analysis is required as a tool when a student's behavior interferes with their ability to be maintained in their current setting, this is a required part of planning. I have encountered very few educators (even within special education) who are familiar with this. When some pushy parent gets insistent the district may provide someone to go through the motions of FBA--and come out with something like a sticker chart of rewards to be added to the IEP.

Meanwhile the things that are actually implemented by well-meaning educators, who really believe that they are "teaching self control" by implementing "consequences" for what a student may have very little control over end up doing some real damage. My son never got to go on field trips. Even in the "special school" for other kids "like him" that I couldn't keep him out of they insisted on holding these things out as "rewards." He could go if he had two weeks or a month of good behavior. Somewhere during that timeframe he was bound to have a really bad day. Removing the promise of the field trip didn't fix it (usually the opposite). What would have made more sense, in terms of him understanding his disease, would have been to make the determination on the day of the field trip whether he was in a good place and could handle the increased freedom outside the classroom, or whether he was in a bad place and needed to stick in the supportive environment.

It is very true that he had some days when not much learning (in the academic sense) was possible. What was even sadder, though, was the number of good days that were wasted because he was being punished for the things that happened on the bad days.

Well said, Margo. In my opinion, we need to educate all school staff in ABA. In fact, it wouldn't hurt to include it in our curriculum in our public schools!

Hi Christina Samuels,

Bipolar Disorders can happen when the patient in depression. It has to be monitored by the parents to prevent these kinds of disorders in children’s.
Dual Diagnosis

I am a mother of 4 children with bipolar disorder and 2 that have depression. Living through the last 16 years has been difficult and add ADHD and it really goes to chaos around our house. My frustration is that all my bipolar children have gotten the run around by the schools and on top of that the juevenile officers think that they are just huddlems with parents that don't control them. Trust me we have tried and they don't understand that juevenile detention facilities will not help these children. Then they turn into adults that don't want to take medication because it doesn't help well thats what bipolar people do and there is no way to make a 17 year old or 26 year old take medicine. It's so frustrating and the schools think that these children do not need any services which if they had a room with less students and others who understand the frustration of kids making fun of them for the ideas of grandior or off the wall thoughts. My kids love school but they get bullied and then they get anxiety and throw up because they get nervous over worring about kids picking on them. Then they get in trouble because they did'nt handle things right well dah they have problems. We need specal services for these kids in school so they can learn in there own ways with teachers that understand their needs. Trina

Depression is gut wrenching. It's heartbreaking. Depression is the cancer in my soul. I can actually feel the hole in my soul when sick.

Bipolar Disorder, Bipolar Patients, Bipolar Symptoms, Bipolar Community, Manic-Depressive, Mania, Mood Swings, Mood Stabilizers, Mental Health Evaluations, Episodes

Comments are now closed for this post.

Follow This Blog


Most Viewed on Education Week



Recent Comments