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Balancing Academics and Serious Illness

When your child has a serious or chronic illness, it's hard to think beyond the next treatment. While health is the first priority, education also is important. School is part of every child’s normal day, and even the most reluctant learner would prefer to be healthy and in school rather than in the hospital. You'll want to help your child stay on top of schoolwork as much as possible and plan for when he or she can return to school.

Not only does staying connected to school bring academic, cognitive, psychological, and social benefits — it's also your child's legal right. Under federal law, kids with chronic or life-threatening illness and/or disabilities are entitled to educational support, and your child might qualify for free services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). If your child attends private or parochial school, you might consider enrolling him or her in your local district, as services are more readily available than in the private sector.

With a little planning and a lot of communication, you can help your child balance treatment and academics.

Plan Ahead

First, talk to your doctor about how long your child is likely to be away from school and whether the treatment might interfere with concentrating, doing homework, and meeting deadlines. Are there side effects that might have an academic impact? What does your doctor recommend when it comes to attendance, tutoring, or studying?

Then talk to the teachers and school staff, and encourage your child, if well enough, to do the same. It may be necessary to set a reduced schedule or shift due dates for papers and tests. With your help, your son or daughter can work with teachers to help plan the workload. The more notice teachers have, the easier it will be to come up with a flexible solution.

Some kids who spend a lot of time away from school or in the hospital have Individual Education Programs (IEPs). These are customized goals and learning strategies created by the teachers, school psychologists (or other specialists), and counselors.

IEPs take a child's individual academic needs into account. Under the IDEA, kids who qualify for an IEP will receive one at no cost, in addition to receiving free support services (such as a tutor) to help them reach educational milestones.

Your child may also be entitled to a 504 Plan, which will specify physical accommodations necessary to help him or her navigate school grounds, access classrooms and bathrooms, acquire an aide, or qualify for special transportation.

IEPs and 504 Plans can be requested by you or anyone on your child's education team. Creating an IEP involves meeting with a variety of support personnel from your school and the school district. Be sure to contact the Special Services Office in your school district as soon as your doctor decides it is time to plan for your child’s discharge and eventual return to school.

Find Hospital-Based Support

If your child will be spending long stretches in the hospital, ask a doctor, nurse, social worker, or child-life specialist about onsite schooling. Many hospitals provide hospital/homebound instruction free of charge to their patients.

The two most common types of educational support include bedside schooling and classroom schooling. Typically, bedside schooling is for children who are too ill to leave their hospital rooms or have weakened immune systems due to chemotherapy. Other kids who are well enough might be educated individually or in small groups in an onsite hospital classroom.

Licensed teachers who are K-12-certified in a variety of subjects and special education work intensively with students to make sure that they don't fall behind in their studies. To stay on track, hospital-based teachers work closely with teachers from a child's school to maintain curriculum continuity, create IEPs and 504 Plans, arrange for homebound instruction upon discharge, and ease reentry into the classroom when the child is well again. School is scheduled around medical tests and therapies, and always takes a child's medical condition and strength into consideration.

Whether your child is being educated at school, in the hospital, or at home, remember that getting better is the main priority. So be realistic about what he or she can handle. Kids may feel an unspoken pressure from parents, teachers, and themselves to continue with schoolwork, and this anxiety could hurt their recovery.

Stay Connected

Maintaining ties with classmates and teachers can help your child retain a sense of normalcy during this difficult time. Your child might even be able to Skype or FaceTime into a lesson at school over the computer. Programs nationwide offer free or low-cost laptops for use in the hospital. Check with your social worker, hospital school program, or the hospital IT department to see if this service is available to you.

In addition to academic isolation, your child may feel cut off socially from friends and classmates. When an illness means an extended absence from school, kids can feel that their classmates and teachers have forgotten about them. This can lead to depression as well as anxiety about returning to the classroom, particularly if the child looks different after treatment. Online social networking sites, email, instant messaging (IM), text messaging, and talking on the phone can help kids stay connected. Also, ask teachers to encourage a letter-writing, email, or care package campaign from classmates — you might even set up a collection box at school where teachers and classmates can deposit notes and pictures.

Arrange for visits from your child's friends and, if the doctor says it's OK and your son or daughter is up to it, encourage him or her to attend school plays, sports events, classroom parties, and other social gatherings.

Hospital school programs, along with Child Life departments in the hospital, offer reentry assistance to students transitioning back to school. Depending on a child's needs, they may visit the school ahead of the return date, speak with faculty, attend IEP meetings, or present informational programs for classmates to help them understand why the child has been absent, what they can expect when the child returns, and — most important — how they can help the child feel welcome.

Staying connected will make for a smoother transition socially, emotionally, and academically when your child returns to school after treatment.

Reviewed by: Alycia Taggi, CBIS
Date reviewed: October 2015