Children and teens can find spending time as an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital difficult. One possible challenge is falling behind on schoolwork while in the hospital.
For more than 30 years, UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital’s inpatient school has helped to ease that concern.
The inpatient school is a licensed private academic school in Pennsylvania. It works with patients’ home school districts to get their schoolwork so they can complete it during their time in the hospital. When the patients get discharged, the inpatient school helps coordinate their transition back to school.
“It really helps cut back on some of that transitional anxiety that the kids may be having,” says Lindsey Murphy, program/education director, UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital. “We see it when they come in and they’re looking at all of the assignments that they have, and they’re very overwhelmed.
“But once you tell them, ‘Do what you can — you don’t have to complete every assignment that’s put out there. Your school’s going to work with you when you leave; you’ll have exemptions,’ it really just eases that tension and anxiety. They know that we’re working behind the scenes to make sure they’re going back to a helpful situation.”
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More Than 30 Years of Service
UPMC Western Psychiatric created the inpatient school in 1990. It did this to provide educational support for children and adolescents who were getting inpatient care.
More than three decades later, the school continues to fulfill its mission. It has long been licensed as a private academic school through the state of Pennsylvania for first grade through 12th. The school is available for patients between the ages of 5 and 18.
Support is available for children of any level of academic performance or academic need. Academic support, emotional support, and gifted programming are all available.
School programming isn’t mandatory for children and teens who are patients at the hospital. However, the school highly encourages it. Students can begin as soon as they can.
The teachers at the inpatient school get permission to talk to a child’s home school district. For patients between 5 and 13 years old, they get permission from a parent or guardian. Patients 14 and older can grant permission themselves.
The inpatient school teachers then reach out to the patient’s school. They ask for an Individualized Education Program (IEP), 504 Plan, and/or other necessary documents to help educate the child. They also get the child’s schoolwork, including hard copies and online versions.
In addition, they talk to a guidance counselor, classroom teacher, or school social worker. They may also talk to other trusted staff members from the child’s regular school.
“We kind of get a little bit of background on them: What’s been going on, if there have been issues at school,” Murphy says. “And then we start to go into an academic plan. Is there a class that we should be focusing on? Are there assignments that are late that maybe we can go back to and work on?
“We’re just coming up with that plan so it’s not as overwhelming for the kids when they’re with us.”
Maintaining Normalcy for Students
The school at UPMC Western Psychiatric is a key part of a child’s overall care while they’re inpatient.
“It’s really important that we maintain that normalcy,” Murphy says. “Just because if you don’t have that school piece as part of their day, then they’re kind of missing out on that. They’re not really keeping up with the consistency. They’re not keeping up with the expectation of schoolwork.
“It’s there to kind of just make it normal, that it is a normal thing. While you’re here, you still have to continue on with your everyday life and your responsibilities.”
There are five different classrooms at the inpatient school. Each one is part of a hospital inpatient program that serves children and adolescents, including:
- Child and Adolescent.
- Child and Adolescent Bipolar Services.
- The Center for Autism and Developmental Disorders.
- The Center for Eating Disorders.
“There’s lots of open communication with every member of the treatment team,” says Hailey Haas, lead developmental specialist, UPMC Western Psychiatric. “I feel like that just makes the kids’ treatment so much better.”
Patients participate in academic school programming for three hours a day, Monday through Friday. School hours supplement the other care they’re getting. This can include group therapy, individual meetings with doctors, art or music therapy sessions, and more.
“The three hours a day really kind of gives them enough of a taste of school, but not so much that they’re feeling that academic pressure,” Murphy says.
The inpatient school’s teachers are all state-certified in general education and special education.
“We work with them one on one to try to help them through the treatment process, but at the same time, keeping them abreast of everything that’s going on in their home schools,” says Angela Schifino, developmental specialist, UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital.
Teachers work to develop an individual academic plan for each patient. They work one on one with each child, providing support as needed.
“Our role is basically to provide that support in a safe space in a nurturing, learning environment,” says Liliana Totten, developmental specialist, UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital.
Laptops and iPads are available for eligible patients. Students also can use learning platforms like IXL and Kahoot.
Available technology provides an incentive for students who may feel reluctant about school, Murphy says.
“I feel like it again kind of reverts back to giving them a sense of normalcy, of being on an iPad or a laptop,” she says. “They aren’t allowed to communicate with anyone while they’re on an iPad or a laptop, but they can go on YouTube and listen to music or watch their favorite YouTuber — whatever it is they enjoy.”
Art supplies are also available for patients interested in art. And different units at the hospital have their own incentives for completing schoolwork and other tasks.
The school also partners with outside organizations like the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium. Those organizations visit the school in person or virtually on a regular basis for interactive learning opportunities.
“We’re really piloting and always looking for new pieces to enrich our educational experience for the kids, so it doesn’t get redundant or boring,” Murphy says. “It’s nice, and the kids truly enjoy it. We’re always looking for new opportunities.”
A Smoother Transition Back to School
Returning to an eight-hour school day after time in the hospital can feel challenging. So the inpatient school works to ease that transition when patients are ready for discharge.
Teachers submit a summary of all the work the student completed while they were an inpatient. They also provide a medical excuse, follow-up plan, and 504 plan recommendation to the school if necessary.
“I think it really helps a lot of them, once they’re leaving, transition back into their school setting with confidence knowing that someone at their school kind of knows what’s going on, that they’re struggling with their mental health, and that they have someone to turn to once they leave,” Murphy says. “Because not in every situation does someone at the school know that they’re struggling or having a really hard time.”
The communication between the inpatient school and the student’s regular school throughout the inpatient process is key, Murphy says.
“If we weren’t there to provide that, there would be a huge piece of care missing,” she says.
“A student can be inpatient for two weeks; they can be inpatient for a month. It just depends on the individual situation. If there was no communication with the school, then all of a sudden, a student just appears back after an inpatient stay, and the school doesn’t really know why.”
The inpatient school’s teachers remain focused on what’s best for the patient, Murphy says — both during and after their stay.
“They’re just like everybody else; they’re just going through a hard time,” she says. “They’re here to get the help they need.”
UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.