Bipolar Disorder Special Needs Factsheet

What Teachers Should Know

Bipolar disorder affects how the brain functions, causing shifts in a person’s moods and energy levels. It’s also called manic depression, manic-depressive disorder, manic-depressive illness, bipolar mood disorder, and bipolar affective disorder.

People with bipolar disorder go through episodes of low-energy depression and high-energy mania.

Depression episodes may include:

  • sadness or feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • fatigue
  • loss of interest in usual activities
  • sleeping too much or inability to sleep
  • inability to concentrate and a drop in academic performance
  • inability to experience pleasure
  • overeating or loss of appetite
  • anger, worry, or anxiety
  • thoughts of death or suicide

Mania episodes may include:

  • increased physical and mental activity
  • racing speech and thoughts
  • elevated mood and exaggerated optimism
  • inflated sense of self-importance
  • decreased need for sleep
  • difficulty concentrating
  • reckless or aggressive behavior
  • anger, excessive irritability, or impatience
  • poor judgment and making rash decisions

In adults, mania or depression episodes can last weeks or months. In kids and teens, episodes can be much briefer, going back and forth between mania and depression throughout a day.

Without treatment, bipolar disorder can worsen as children get older. But following a medication treatment plan and making a few lifestyle changes — like eating a nutritious diet, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and managing stress — can help kids and teens with bipolar disorder control the symptoms and lead normal lives.

Students with bipolar disorder may:

  • need seating near the front of the room to help avoid distractions
  • show drops in grades and changes in class participation
  • need additional time for tests and assignments or require modified schedules
  • miss class time due to appointments with health care professionals
  • need to visit the school nurse for medication
  • need to carry a water bottle and have unlimited access to restrooms (especially students taking lithium)
  • need to talk with a school counselor or psychologist periodically
  • be at a higher risk for suicide

What Teachers Can Do

Treatment for bipolar disorder usually involves the use of medications, such as mood stabilizers, and counseling or psychotherapy. Teachers need to watch for extreme behavioral changes or any signs of suicidal thoughts. Educators should take these signs seriously. The student’s parents or guardians, psychologist, or other health care professionals can talk to school staff about how to respond to such situations.

Encourage your students with bipolar disorder to participate in all school-based activities as best they can, when they can.

Plan and agree on a “safe place” with your student — a place to go if he or she feels overwhelmed or just needs to relax. You also can agree on a “safe person” (possibly you) your student can talk to. When your student needs to go to the safe place or talk with the safe person, allow for a discreet exit without drawing his or her classmates’ attention.

If the student does not have an individualized education plan (IEP) or a 504 education plan, consult with a school counselor, psychologist, or social worker to see if developing a plan with parents or guardians would help. If the student does have an IEP or 504, make sure to follow the plan’s requirements.

Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: June 2015