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Suggestions for Teaching a Bipolar Child

For those teaching a child with bipolar disorder, it is often difficult to not only see, but understand, how the illness is affecting their lives.

Children with bipolar disorder have many symptoms that can interfere with their ability to work:

Educating a Bipolar Child. Suggestions for teaching a bipolar child.
  • irritability
  • impulsivity
  • racing thoughts
  • sudden mood changes
  • distractibility
  • intense energy or lack of energy
  • difficulty with transitions
  • difficulty with multi-step tasks

Additionally, a child with bipolar disorder may experience symptoms from medication such as nausea, increased appetite, spacey feelings, headaches, and fatigue. Possible side effects of medications and symptoms of bipolar disorder are all things that those working with children with bipolar disorder should keep in mind when wondering why the child isn't working at what the teacher would consider a "normal" mode.

Teachers and school staff should also keep in mind that children with bipolar disorder are extremely sensitive and often feel things much more intensely than their peers. They very much want to be accepted and just like everyone else - they expend a large amount of energy in just trying to be "normal" and keep things together as best they can.

Frequently, children with bipolar disorder are unable to admit and communicate to teachers and school staff when they are getting frustrated, behind on work, don't understand something, or need help. It is important to continually monitor both their work and their progress. There may be times when it is extremely difficult for the child to stay on task, absorb details, and complete their work.

Teachers should always communicate with parents as soon as possible when a child with bipolar disorder is struggling with work or is getting out of control. What sometimes may appear to be a student who just doesn't want to do the work or is acting out, is often the sign of something much more serious in a child with bipolar disorder.



From the beginning, it is extremely important that effective lines of communication are developed and fostered between school personnel and parents. If a school-based counselor or psychologist who has an understanding of the illness is available, he or she can be an invaluable asset in explaining the impact and effects of the child's illness within the various areas of the academic setting.

Teachers and school staff should also look to the parents who know their child best to discover what works or doesn't work with the child. Parents can also be an invaluable resource to teachers as they may have information that can be shared with teachers to help them better understand both childhood bipolar disorder and their child.

There are several practical strategies that can be implemented. Recommendations can include some or all of the following, based upon the student's indivdual needs.

  1. REDUCED ACADEMIC LEVEL: Due to attention, cognitive, and memory-related issues, students often find advanced level courses too difficult. General level courses may be more appropriate. Some may feel that taking classes of a lower academic standing is undesirable, but what we want for these children is a successful outcome, which is even more important.
  2. TAILORED COURSES: Offering courses that focus on the strengths and interests of a child with bipolar disorder may be more appropriate than taking a general curriculum. It should be noted that courses, like math, that require a high level of concentration may be exceptionally difficult.
  3. REDUCED COURSE LOAD: Children with bipolar disorder often experience problems with fatigue and concentration. A reduced course load, or offering courses requiring higher amounts of concentration should be offered at times when the child is functioning at their highest level. Afternoons are typically periods where functioning and concentration are lower.
  4. RECOMMENDATIONS FOR TEACHERS: Teachers with a calm demeanor who provide structure but can maintain flexibility often work best with children with bipolar disorder. Teachers who are very detail-oriented or demanding may increase the anxiety level of the child. Careful matching of student to teacher is a very helpful strategy, but will require the cooperation of school administrators.
  5. TIME-OUTS: With the various medication side effects and symptoms of the illness experienced by children with bipolar disorder, students may need brief breaks or time-outs from the classroom. These should be set up in a structured or scheduled fashion in order to minimize disruption to classmates and limit attention to the child's difficulties.
  6. TIME EXTENSIONS: Additional time may be needed for timed tasks and test due to issues such as slower working/processing memory and medication-related writing difficulties like hand tremors.
  7. ORAL TESTS: Issues from hand tremors, fine motor skills, or thought expression and writing may require the presentation of content orally.
  8. INDIVIDUALIZED PROGRAMS/PROGRAM CHANGES: Allowing the student to work at his/her own pace can be very beneficial as well as providing flexibility in the evaluation process.



  1. Keep the "I" in IEP (Individualized Education Plan). This means to individualize the IEP plan. As each child is unique and different, no IEP should be the same. Try and give the student activities and classes that he/she loves and enjoys. On the other hand, if the child has a strong dislike for something or it is difficult for them, try and avoid it.
  2. Linear progression from the student should not be expected. A severe chronic neurobiological disorder, like bipolar disorder, is a chronic, physical medical illness, which implies relapses and remissions. Be just as understanding of this student as you would one with other illnesses or diseases.
  3. Be flexible. If one method doesn't work, try something else. Keep trying until you find something that does work. Remember the same method will not work, even for the same child.
  4. Work with the student to help him/her manage symptoms of his/her illness and that he/she has some control.
  5. If the student is agitated, anxious, lethargic, paranoid, or otherwise suffering from symptoms of his/her illness, let him/her take some space or even lie down for a while.
  6. If the student is angry, talk to him/her in a non-judgmental way. Do not attempt to "find" reasons for why he/she is feeling this way. Do ask the child what they think might help.
  7. If, for whatever reason, the student is having a hard time focusing and doing his/her work well, try to make the task easier. Tell the student "do what you can" or " it is okay to work at your own pace".
  8. Arrange for regularly scheduled check-in times that coincide with the teacher's schedule. The scheduled check-in times can be for 5 every 1 to 2 hours or for 10 minutes twice per day, during which the student can talk to a designated, sympathetic adult who understands the nature of the student's illness. This person can listen and offer support and advice to the student as needed.

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