"This is a teacher's worst nightmare."
I heard those words from a third-grade teacher over two years ago when my then eight-year-old daughter's friend Bella was diagnosed with leukemia. I've since watched this teacher go above and beyond her job and find beauty in helping every student feel educated and supported through a very difficult time. Through her leadership, I learned a few things about how to educate and academically support a child with a medical illness, as well as supporting the class in their education of childhood illnesses.
As a certified child life specialist, I'm on the front lines of helping hospitalized children through education, preparation, and play. After all my years, I didn't think too much about what was happening at home for our patients until I was the one at home with a child who was missing her friend.
According to the American Childhood Cancer Organization, approximately 15,000 children are diagnosed with cancer each year, and per The Children's Heart Foundation, approximately 40,000 children are born each year with heart disease. This doesn't include the millions of children who are diagnosed with diabetes or other chronic illnesses, or who suffer from debilitating injuries. What do all these children have in common? They go to school, they have friends who miss them, and they have teachers who want to help them.
So where do you start?
An important first step is clearing up any misconceptions that other children might have about this student's illness.
Learn about it.
When Bella was diagnosed, I joined her teacher to present a lesson on leukemia, explaining in detail how blood works and the effect of this disease on the body.
Answer questions about it.
Have an open discussion with the class. Bring in an expert and answer any burning questions. I made myself available to the teacher and principal to help provide the students with answers. And if I didn't know an answer, I knew who to ask at the hospital and would convey this information back to the school staff.
Keep discussing it.
Have a time each day that you're available for the students to talk in private about their worries or concerns. Bella's teacher was always available for her students. She regularly had open and frank conversations with them to provide support.
Read about it.
Read books as a basis for discussions about how to be a good friend. Here are a few of my favorites for younger children:
- How to Be a Friend: A Guide to Making Friends and Keeping Them by Laurie Krasny Brown (author) and Marc Brown (illustrator)
- Why, Charlie Brown, Why? by Charles M. Shulz
Here are some resources to teach about childhood illnesses and diseases:
- Just Like You Films
- Educating the Child with Cancer: A Guide for Parents and Teachers
- JayJo Special Needs Publishing: books specifically developed to address issues facing children with chronic illnesses and conditions
- Connect with a child life specialist or hospital school teacher from your local children’s hospital. Many hospitals have an outreach program to provide education and support to the classroom.
These strategies can help your students stay connected with their classmate:
Monkey in My Chair
Monkey in My Chair is a fun tool that inspires an ongoing classroom connection with the absent child. All the kids in Bella's class had a stuffed monkey that sat in her chair at school when she wasn't able to be there. She also had a matching monkey that was hers to use as a support and coping tool.
Brainstorm with the class.
Have the class come up with a plan for staying connected and helping their friend participate in activities. We had Bella join us on field trips when she could. We had her FaceTime in for a bingo night fundraiser with her friends on the other end of the call.
Make a friend plan.
Have the class take turns each day to FaceTime, Skype, or call their classmate to check in or share homework assignments.
Participate in homeschool activities.
As an after-school activity, have students go with the child's homeschool teacher to bring a little bit of the classroom culture into his or her home. Bella's teacher chose to take on the homeschooling herself. She would often grab a few kids and bring them to Bella's house for a fun lesson, or to the hospital for a pajama party (or, as I called it, recess).
Resources for Teachers
Teachers will benefit from the information available through these sources:
- Explore the Council for Exceptional Children's webinar on School Support for Students with Chronic Medical Conditions.
- Association for the Education of Children with Medical Needs (AECMN) is a non-profit organization comprised of educators committed to working with children with medical needs.
While it's not as easy as 1,2,3 to manage a classroom and support a child with an illness, it is possible. Know that you are not alone and that there are many resources at your fingertips to help guide and support you as a classroom teacher.