Children are encouraged to attend school as much as possible. However, depending on your child’s diagnosis and overall medical condition, his/her ability to attend school may vary. Your child may need to miss school for several weeks; some children may miss intermittently or on a more long-term basis. During this time, you can bring school work home for your child to do if he/she feels up to it.
Talk with your social worker about school programs and other resources. Talk with your doctor about the best time to start going to school again. Then support your child to return to school as much as he/she can tolerate it. Continuing with school as much as possible will help your child continue to develop and feel normal. Attendance keeps your child from falling behind academically, emotionally, and socially.
It is important to keep your child’s teacher, school nurse, and principal informed of the situation.Your child’s school teacher and school nurse should be aware that children taking chemotherapy are particularly likely to get the communicable diseases of childhood (such as chicken pox, flu, RSV, etc.). Ask the schoolteacher or nurse to contact you immediately if your child is exposed to an illness in school.
How Can You Help Your Child Return to School?
Your child may be worried about how other children will react to his/her appearance, or they may be concerned about how to answer questions about cancer. You can help prepare the class beforehand by sending written materials to the teacher, having your child write a letter to the class, or making a video explaining what life with cancer is like for your child. You can practice asking and answering questions about cancer with your child to prepare for returning to school.
It may also be helpful to prepare a short presentation for your child’s class or grade explaining cancer. A few children have even been allowed to present information to the entire school during an assembly. The presentation might include topics such as: “What is cancer?” “Is it contagious?” “What do you do when you’re in the hospital?” “Why did your hair fall out?” “Can you play with us?” Have the class role-play difficult situations your child may face, such as teasing or being alone. It can be fun for your child to participate in the presentation. Prepare your child for questions about death from classmates. Your social worker can help coordinate a school presentation for your child’s classmates.
The side effects related to treatment may keep your child from participating fully in school. Your child should be encouraged to participate, but not be pushed into doing what he/she is not capable of doing. Many options exist, including home tutoring and part-time school. Each school district has a different method for providing home schooling. Your social worker or the teacher at the hospital may help you arrange home schooling for your child.
Is There Extra Help for Your Child in School?
Children with cancer may have learning needs because of their illness or treatment. There are two major laws that provide rights to them as “disabled” people. It may be unusual to think of your child as disabled, but consider the definition of disability: “a physical or mental disability which substantially limits one or more of life’s major activities,” (such as breathing, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, learning, and working). Every school district must provide free and appropriate public education for all children with a disability.
The two major laws concerning children with disabilities are Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Section 504 is a civil rights act that protects people from discrimination based on their being disabled. This act says that reasonable accommodations should be made in order for your child to participate in school. Examples of accommodations are: allowing extra time to move from one classroom to the next, modifying assignments and tests, using study guides, organizing tools, providing a second set of textbooks for the home, modifying gym classes, or providing transportation.
Children must be evaluated to see if they are eligible for Section 504 services. You will be involved in a team meeting to discuss the evaluation and initial plan. Your social worker has forms to use as a model for written 504 plans.
IDEA provides for special education services for children who qualify under a list of more specific disabilities such as intellectual disability, speech and language impairments, orthopedic impairments, traumatic brain injury, specific learning disabilities, or other health impairments (13 federal classifications). As with the Rehabilitation Act, children must be evaluated to see if they are eligible for special education services. If your child is eligible, you and a team of education professionals familiar with your child will hold an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting to discuss the plan and goals. The plan must be in writing and reviewed every year. Children with cancer most commonly qualify under “Other Health Impaired (OHI) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)” (including children with brain tumors).
Your first step is to call your child’s school and request that your child be evaluated for these services. Talk with your school district’s 504 coordinator or special education director. For more information and help getting necessary education services, please talk with your social worker. Remember, your child has a legal right to an education. Do not be put off if the school tells you your child does not qualify without an evaluation. Call the district office or the State Board of Education for additional assistance. You can also ask for assistance from the hospital’s education specialist who can help you to coordinate assistance from your child’s school.