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Back to School Support Following a Serious Illness or New Diagnosis


Returning to school can be filled with many different emotions for children, but for a child returning to school following a long duration of treatment, it can be a very emotionally and physically challenging experience. They may have fallen behind academically, missed out on important school or peer activities and experienced a disruption in their daily routine. In this post, we share some common worries, and strategies and tips to ensure a smoother return to school after a hospital stay.


girl going back to school

Common Worries:

  • Worries and concerns about being behind academically

  • Concerns regarding what others will think or say about the reason for their absence

  • Drawing attention or being treated differently for changes in appearance or abilities

  • Disconnection from peers and feeling like they no longer fit in

  • Not sure how to respond or talk to others about their illness

  • Physical limitations due to health conditions

  • Fears of future health issues that may cause more missed school days

  • Being away from parents

  • Medical management and ability to handle any monitoring equipment or dietary restrictions


Helpful Tips for Parents and Caregivers:

Psychosocial Check-ins

Maintain open lines of communication with you child, and involve you child in the transition planning and ask what they feel would help the most. Build in regular check-ins to provide space for sharing and processing of their feelings and experiences. Practice questions and responses with your child answering hypothetical questions from teachers and peers. Practice responses that set boundaries if your child does not wish to share about their diagnosis or hospitalization with peers.

Creating a Transition Plan

Preparations for returning to school in advance can help facilitate a smoother transition. Work with the child’s healthcare team to develop a comprehensive plan that addresses academic, physical, and emotional needs, as well as anticipated challenges to set the child and school up for success. This modified learning plan should include any personnel that will play a role in helping the child adjust back into the classroom.

Collaborating with Supportive Staff and Resources

Check with the school for support staff and resources available for students with health conditions. This includes but are not limited to school counselors, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, child life specialists, teacher aide, or other student support staff who can provide emotional support and guidance during this transition. Update teachers to help them understand potential cognitive or physical limitations in order to adapt teaching strategies or expectations.

Phased Approach

In order to ease a child back into academics and social interactions at a comfortable pace, consider a phased approach where the child starts with reduced hours, then gradually increasing as they regain their strength and adjust to the school routine.

Additional Academic Support

There may be gaps in a child’s academic progress as a result of missed school days. Work with teachers and tutors to identify learning gaps and provide catch-up lessons or one-on-one support to get back on track.

Peer Connections

Reconnecting with classmates and friends after a hospitalization is crucial, as well as maintaining connections with a community who may have shared similar experiences to decrease feelings of isolation. Encourage social interactions by arranging gatherings with close friends before returning to school. One popular summer camp network for children with serious illness is through the Serious Fun Camps, https://seriousfun.org/. Should the child need to be hospitalized again, families may take interest in programs such as Monkey in My Chair, which help children stay connected with their peers, by having a big stuffed monkey go to school in place of the child http://www.monkeyinmychair.org.

Education and Awareness

Teachers and support staff can facilitate age appropriate education, conversations and activities that promote empathy, inclusion, and understanding among classmates. Some families may choose to share about their story or experience with classmates. Dependent on where your child was treated, a child life specialist can go to your child's school and teach their classmates about their diagnosis or hospitalization to clear misconceptions, increase empathy, and ease any fear or anxiety. If your child's hospital does not provide this service, our team at Hearts Connected can develop a similar plan and presentation to assist with the transition.

 

It is important to be patient and understanding during this transition in order to help children regain their academic, physical, and social confidence. Celebrate the small victories and progress, validate their feelings, and encourage them daily. Think, plan, and act ahead. Our team at Hearts Connected is available to help you brainstorm and navigate your child's transition back to school. Schedule your free consult today to talk directly with one of our child life specialists about how we can support you and your family.