A new school year presents a lot of new opportunities like new teachers, new subjects and the possibility of new friends. But that newness also comes with a good degree of uncertainty, which can be frightening for a student with a chronic illness, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, collectively known as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). That anxiety can be especially strong if the diagnosis is new, and the upcoming school year will be your child’s first with IBD.
“The first day of school after an IBD diagnosis can be hard, but with some planning it’s quite manageable,” says Dr. Michael Docktor, of the Boston Children’s Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center. “Most children with the condition are able to quickly return to their normal school routines. All it takes is a few extra steps to make the return as seamless as possible.”
Watch Dr. Michael Docktor’s caregiver video
To ensure school is a positive experience for your child with newly diagnosed IBD, Docktor suggests speaking with your child’s teachers, school administrator and nurse as soon as possible to discuss any concerns or questions you may have. Here are some tips to help prepare for a busy school year.
The teaching staff should know that IBD is episodic in nature, and your child may need to make frequent or urgent trips to the restroom. Depending on classroom rules, she may need special permission to do so.
Depending on the severity of the condition, your child may miss several days of school over the course of the year and will need to have work sent home and/or adapted based on classroom availability. Teaching staff should be aware these absences may not happen at regular intervals and could lead to difficulties with some curriculum.
If your child has specific dietary restrictions, the school should know about them, and your child should have access to safe snacks and treats for birthdays and/or classroom celebrations. This may include permission to carry water bottles or discreet snacks into a classroom.
For some children, adhering to a medication routine is very important. Finding ways to accommodate that routine, without disrupting classes, may take some planning.
If your child misses a lot of school, her peers may have questions about the absence. Some families opt to address IBD with their child’s friends and classmates to dispel any myths, misinformation or concerns. If your family wishes to discuss the issue, speak with your child’s classroom teacher about the best way to do so.
Your child may occasionally have cosmetic changes either from the illness or as side effects from treatment, like puffy cheeks from steroids. These changes may be difficult for your child to understand and/or explain to others. Speaking with her teacher, physician, counselor or social worker may be helpful in explaining the changes and identifying ways to anticipate questions from peers and rehearse responses.
Keep the momentum going
By addressing these potential concerns early — and planning appropriately — the family and teaching staff can help make the first day of school with IBD less overwhelming for everyone. It’s important to remember these early meetings are just the beginning of what should become a year-long discussion.
“An ongoing collaborative partnership between home and school is an important part of managing IBD, because the child will be spending most days in the classroom,” Docktor says. “But as with with any chronic condition, management may change with time, so keeping those lines of communication open and adjusting plans as needed is very important.”
“Depending on the extent of your child’s condition, he or she may need a individualized health or 504 plan,” adds Janis Arnold, MA, LICSW, a social worker with Boston Children’s Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center. “If you are unsure about how to obtain such a plan, speak with your child’s school, health care provider or a social worker for help.”