Mood - Bipolar

General Information

A child with bipolar problems suffers swings in mood ranging from depressed to overly energized or manic. These problems usually do not develop until late adolescence or adulthood, but there are some younger children who experience mood swings and rages that are considered to stem from the same source. Children struggling with this difficulty often experience very fast mood swings between depression and mania many times in a day. Children with mania are more likely to be irritable and prone to destructive tantrums than to be overly happy and elated. Mixed symptoms also are common in young adolescents dealing with bipolar problems; older adolescents may have more classic, adult-type episodes and symptoms. Bipolar difficulties in children and teens can be difficult to distinguish from other problems and may sometimes go unnoticed at school, especially for children who can “hold it together” at school but then “explode” when they get home.

General Characteristics To Look For

Depressed symptoms may include
  • feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, or hopelessness
  • difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • loss of interest in taking part in activities
  • avoiding other people
  • overwhelming feelings of sadness or grief
  • feeling unreasonably guilty and hopeless
  • loss of energy, feeling very tired
  • thoughts of death or suicide

Manic symptoms may include
  • excessively high, elevated, or irritable mood
  • unreasonable optimism, grandiosity
  • hyperactivity or racing thoughts
  • talkativeness, rapid speech, at times babbling
  • decreased sleep
  • extremely short attention span
  • rapid shifts to rage or sadness

Impact On Student Success

  • Because bipolar problems affect the part of the brain that supports memory, concentration, and emotional regulation, students may have difficulty concentrating on, understanding, and remembering assignments or staying focused on long or complex work.
  • Students dealing with bipolar problems often feel overwhelmed by the intensity of their emotions.
  • The social aspects of school may be just as difficult as the academic work for these students.

Even the tried and true strategies of experienced teams may not work consistently, given a student’s frequent mood shifts, and school teams can feel frustrated and find it hard to deliver the extra reassurance that a student grappling with mood problems may need. This in turn can leave the student feeling unequal to the demands of school life.

  • Patiently ignore minor negative behaviours, encourage positive behaviours, and provide positive behavioural choices.
  • Help the child self-monitor mood and build a routine for taking “time outs” as needed to help regain composure.
  • Encourage a team approach, with family, school, and community partners, to build understanding of the student’s particular needs.
  • Devise a flexible curriculum that accommodates the sometimes rapid changes in the student’s ability to perform consistently in school.
  • Considerations may include:
    • different work when concentration is lower
    • modified testing methods
    • a distraction-free environment for challenging tasks.
  • Promote a calm and consistent classroom environment.
  • Manage conflict and confrontation with calm—students may behave in a way that tries to recreate externally the turmoil they struggle with internally, but they look to the adults around them to help them navigate back to safer shores.
  • Provide space where students can go for privacy if they are struggling to maintain self-control.
  • Ensure solid transition planning between grades and provide opportunities for teachers, families, and community partners to share knowledge/information about what works for the child.
  • Provide professional development opportunities for staff.
  • Provide information about how the child is affected by bipolar difficulties and help the school team learn how to identify patterns in behaviour that could signal a mood shift.
  • Share strategies that work at home.
  • Work with the school to build consistency between home and school environments regarding how academic work is handled.
  • Provide focused consultation to the teams that support the student.
  • Help facilitate access to specialized resources as needed.
  • Help families and children build the capacity to manage bipolar problems through treatment that
    • enhances awareness and the ability to respond
    • provides techniques for anticipating and working around the intrusiveness and disruptions of bipolar difficulties.
  • Help build a team approach between home, counselling services, and the school team so that the expectations for the child are consistent across environments and the particular challenges of the school environment are respected.
  • Help parents/caregivers and schools participate in the implementation and support of services that reinforce evidence-informed approaches to treatment.