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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. Even the most reluctant learner would rather 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 they 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 or life-threatening illness and/or disabilities are entitled to educational support. 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 them in your local district, as services are more readily available in public schools than in the private sector.

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

Planning Ahead

First, talk to your doctor about how long your child is likely to be away from school and whether the treatment might affect concentration, 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. Your child might need a reduced schedule or different 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 consider a child's individual academic needs. Under the IDEA, kids who qualify for an IEP will receive one at no cost, and get free support services (such as a tutor) to help them reach educational milestones.

Your child might be entitled to a 504 Plan, which will specify physical accommodations to help them navigate school grounds, access classrooms and bathrooms, find an aide, or qualify for special transportation.

You and anyone on your child's education team can ask for an IEP and 504 Plan. To create an IEP, you'll meet with support staff from your school and the school district. Contact the Special Services Office in your school district as soon as the doctor says it's time to plan for your child's hospital discharge and return to school.

Finding Hospital-Based Support

If your child will spend long stretches in the hospital, ask a doctor, nurse, social worker, or child-life specialist about onsite schooling. Many hospitals provide hospital/homebound instruction at no cost 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 various 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 or social workers work closely with teachers from a child's school to:

  • maintain curriculum continuity
  • create IEPs and 504 Plans
  • arrange for homebound instruction upon discharge
  • ease reentry into the classroom when the child is well again

School is scheduled around medical tests and therapies, and always considers child's medical condition and strength.

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 they can handle. Kids may feel an unspoken pressure from parents, teachers, and themselves to continue with schoolwork, and this anxiety could hurt their recovery.

Staying Connected

Maintaining ties with classmates and teachers can help your child keep a sense of normalcy during this difficult time. Your child might 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.

Your child also may feel cut off socially from friends and classmates. When an illness means a long absence from school, kids can feel that their classmates and teachers have forgotten about them. This can lead to depression and anxiety about returning to the classroom, particularly if the child looks different after treatment. Online social networking sites, email, instant messaging (IM), texting, 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. If the doctor says it's OK and your child is up to it, encourage him or her to attend school plays, sports events, classroom parties, and other social gatherings.

Hospital school programs and Child Life departments can help students who are going 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 explain to classmates 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.

Date reviewed: October 2019