For most children, returning to school is an exciting time. It means new school supplies and clothes, a new teacher, sometimes a new school, and catching up with old friends. For medically fragile children, it can be a very scary, stressful experience. It may be the first time back in school since being diagnosed, treated, or possibly home/hospital schooled. It might have been six months, a year or more away from a normal school experience. Some children attend school despite countless doctor and clinic visits, but the worry of “missing something” and getting behind can be a real concern.
One of the most important things to do at the beginning of the new school year has to do with your child’s emotions. How are they feeling about going back to school? Do their friends know they have been ill, or that some new medicine might make them look different? Are they comfortable talking with the other students about their illness? If a parent, medical staff member, or teacher shared information about their illness with last year’s class, would your child like someone to brief their new class to help them understand their medical condition? Bullying must be nipped in the bud, and educating the whole class about your child’s health issues is one way to do so.
Parents also have a list of things to take care of before their child sets foot in the classroom. First, you should request a meeting with the principal, nurse, psychologist, and anyone else who will be interacting with your child. You’ll want to bring the team up to date on current medical concerns and treatment. Some kids are extremely sensitive to noise—where should they go during an assembly or recess? Can they wear headphones? How about eating restrictions? Many medically fragile children have food allergies and cannot eat or even be around certain foods like nuts or gluten, so classmates’ parents must be warned not to send these foods in to share. If your child is immune suppressed you can ask that the desks be wiped down at the end of the day. Remind the teacher to have the class use hand sanitizer throughout the day (you may have to provide it). Ask the school to notify you if any child has chicken pox, measles, flu, etc. Set up the expectation that if someone in class appears to be unwell, your child can move to another spot in the room to avoid exposure.
If your child fatigues easily, should their work be modified? This may need to be part of the 504 or IEP process. What other accommodations do they need? Would copies of the teachers’ notes be helpful (especially on the days they are absent)? How about extended time to finish tests and assignments? Can they record class lessons and discussions to review at home? Do they need a permanent pass to use the bathroom? Is there any reason your child would need to use the adult bathroom versus the children’s bathroom? Should your child be given an extra set of books to keep at home rather than having to carry heavy ones home each night? (Some schools offer this to the entire student body, anyway.) Will they need a place to rest when tired or not feeling well? When and how do you want the school to notify you if your child is feeling unwell?
Returning to school can be a wonderful new adventure or a fearful trip down the path of unknown. Think ahead, act ahead, and you can give your child a successful and healthy start to their new school year.
For some delightful photos of very brave kids returning to school, please visit here.
The HEAL School Reentry Program at Lucile Packard helps parents and schools recognize the unique learning needs of our children with medical conditions. We help school personnel recognize the impacts of illness on the student’s school performance in order to obtain appropriate school services.
Jeanne Kane is an educational specialist with teaching credentials in regular and special education. She has a Master’s Degree in Exceptional Children. Jeanne is Program Coordinator and Educational Consultant for the HEAL School Reentry Program at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. Jeanne has held this position for 12 years and has worked with the medically fragile population for 18 years.