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Balancing Schoolwork and Hospital Stays

Medically reviewed by: Colleen O'Shea, M.Ed

Classes. Homework. Special projects. Even for students who have no health problems to think about, staying on top of schoolwork can be challenging. So what happens when you have to miss a lot of school because of illness?

It may seem like missing school will just give you one more thing to worry about. But that doesn't have to be the case. In fact, if you're like a lot of students who have cancer or other health conditions, you may find that studying takes your mind off everything else. Learning new skills and solving problems are great ways to feel good about yourself and your talents.

Work in a Way That Works for You

When you're sick, you need to find a way of studying that's right for you. What's right may change from day to day. Some days you'll have the energy to tackle a term paper. On other days, you'll want to go slow or take a break entirely — and that's OK. You may not be able to predict which day will be which. Keep a variety of different projects on hand so there's always something you feel like doing.

It's hard to open the books and get started, but that's true for every student who sits down to study. Because it can take a while to really get into a project, plan to keep working for half an hour. That way you'll find out if you're really not well enough to focus or if you just need to get past the initial hurdle of getting started.

The last thing you need when you're focused on getting well is for schoolwork to feel like an extra burden. No one learns well under stress. If you start feeling stressed out, talk to your teachers.

Tips for Managing Schoolwork

Here are some ways for students who are sick or in the hospital to keep up with what's going on in class:

Get the facts. Start by asking your doctor how long you're likely to be away from school. Find out whether your treatments may interfere with your ability to concentrate, work, and meet deadlines. Knowing this will help you plan ahead and talk to teachers.

Talk to your teachers. You may need to set a reduced schedule or shift due dates for papers and tests. School staff can help you plan your workload. Let teachers know as soon as you find out what your treatment plan will be. The more notice they have, the easier it is for them to work with you.

If you have to spend long stretches in the hospital or at home, stay connected to classmates and teachers through social networks, email, and texting. You may be able to participate in classes online. Some programs across the country offer free or low-cost laptops for students to use while they're in the hospital. Check with your doctor, social worker, or hospital IT department to see if there's one nearby.

Set realistic goals. If you'll miss school a lot or you'll be out for a long time, school staff may give you something called an Individual Education Plan (IEP). This plan is made just for you and outlines goals and strategies to help you succeed academically. 

IEPs allow for accommodations to be made to your academic load. For instance, your IEP may limit your amount of homework, allow you to have extra time for tests and for projects, or give you permission to record lectures or use a laptop to take notes.

Along with an IEP, you might have a 504 Plan. It will address any physical accommodations you might need, like leaving class a few minutes before the bell to avoid a crowded hallway, permission to use the bathroom whenever necessary, or carrying water and a snack to boost your energy during class. Your school might even assign an aide to help you navigate the school day safely.

Whether you have an IEP or not, stay in touch with your teachers while you're out. Keep them posted on your progress, and don't be afraid or embarrassed to let them know if you fall behind in your plan. It's better for your grades to let teachers know in advance if you can't make a deadline rather than miss it and then try to explain why. If you find you're able to work faster than your plan, let teachers know that too.

Ask for help. Parents, teachers, and friends will probably be happy to assist in any way they can — whether you need tips for managing your study time or help going over a difficult concept. But people won't know you need help unless you ask.

Some hospitals and treatment centers have hospital/homebound teachers at the bedside or in a classroom setting. These teachers can help you keep up with your assignments and also talk with your school to help you have a smooth move back to the classroom when you're better. Some students prefer to work with a tutor or teacher, others like working on their own, and some like a mix of the two. Ask your doctor, nurse, or social worker what's available.

Keep a calendar of deadlines, test schedules, and other due dates. Work back from those dates to figure out how much time to spend on different tasks each week. The more organized you are, the easier it will be to plan ahead for the times when you're feeling well enough to work (and reduce the pressure you may put on yourself during the not-so-hot times).

Hit the hallways — or the field — if you can. If you have to miss classes for an extended period of time but your doctor say you are well enough to go out for an hour or two here and there, join your classmates at school plays, sports events, and other social gatherings. It can help you feel more in touch.

Taking steps like these make it easier to return to school and less likely you'll fall behind. They'll also give you something else that most high school students don't get: a chance to learn good planning and study habits. If college is in your future, you'll already have the discipline needed to stay self-motivated and study on your own.

Medically reviewed by: Colleen O'Shea, M.Ed
Date reviewed: March 2022