Jan 14

Guest Post: When Chronic Illness Comes to School

Posted by Valentine Burr in Fair Is Not Equal on Jan 14, 2013

This post comes to you from Bank Street College faculty member Deborah B. Vilas, MS, CCLS, LMSW

It is flu season and many of us are under the weather. We know that with a bit of rest, fluids and maybe antibiotics, we will feel fine soon. But what about our students who live with illness every day? What challenges do they face when they attend school, and what might you do to support them? Many of the chronic illnesses that you are likely to “see” in school are invisible at first glance. Diabetes, epilepsy, asthma, Crohn's disease, and sickle cell anemia are examples of these. Whatever the diagnosis, children with chronic illness share some of the same challenges and concerns.

Questions and concerns kids might have include:

  • What if I get sick at school?
  • Will the adults know what to do to help me?
  • I don’t want other kids to think I am contagious or different.
  • I don’t want to be teased.
  • I want to be treated like everyone else.
  • I want to be able to do the same things my peers can do.
  • I feel lost and left out when I miss school due to illness.

Of course children’s concerns vary by age and individual needs. However, there are some things you can keep in mind that will go a long way to helping these children feel more comfortable at school.

These tips should get you started:

  • Check in with the child’s family, the school nurse, and any other relevant medical team members about issues you should be aware of and ways you may need to accommodate for a child’s needs. A child’s caregivers are the best primary source of information, and a team approach is a strength-based approach.
  • Do ten minutes of Internet research about any chronic medical diagnoses present in your class. This will inform you of vital information such as the need for children with sickle cell anemia to remain hydrated, the need of a child with diabetes to have regular snacks, or the need of a child with cancer to wear a hat. Class rules may have to be adjusted to accommodate these needs.
  • Use “person first” language when referring to a child with a diagnosis. The child has a diagnosis, but the diagnosis should never define the child. For example, referring to a child as a “child with diabetes” rather than as “a diabetic;” and only referring to the illness when necessary.
  • If you teach in an early childhood setting, set up a medical play area in your classroom. Well children need to play about doctor visits too.
  • Have books about illness as part of your classroom library. See a few suggestions listed below.
  • Check with the child and family to see what they would like peers to know about the child’s diagnosis, if anything. Sometimes an ill child needs scaffolding with how to navigate the curiosity of peers.
  • If the child is hospitalized, with the family’s permission, consult with a child life specialist at the hospital about school reentry. They can give you guidance about how to help reintegrate the child and how to manage children’s questions and concerns. Some specialists make school visits to assist in the reentry process or provide in-services for staff.
  • Think of creative ways to help absent children remain part of everyday school life. The monkey in my chair program is an example of how to help children with cancer stay connected to their classmates.

Children with healthcare needs are kids first and foremost. A strengths-based approach mixed with a healthy dose of information will keep you and your whole class on track.

A few suggested titles:

The ABCs Of Asthma: An Asthma Alphabet Book For Kids Of All Ages by Kim Gosselin.

Taking My Medicine: Seeing Sickle Cell Anemia Through My Eight Year Old Eyes by Egypt Harvey.

Bald-Headed Princess: Cancer, Chemo, and Courage by 
Maribeth R. Ditmars.

Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans and Curious George Goes to the Hospital by Margret & H.A. Rey are generic books about illness.

tagged child life, health, illness
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