Helping your child stay in school during cancer treatment

For kindergartners through teenagers, it’s back-to-school time. And while this annual rite of passage is often met with groans, for children undergoing cancer treatment, this can be a welcome change – provided you properly prepare.

“School serves as a normalizing experience for kids with cancer, because it’s what their peer group is doing,” says Lisa Northman, PhD, a staff psychologist in the School Liaison Program at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. “It’s important for them to know that even in the midst of their treatment, there is a life available to them outside the hospital. They should participate in this developmental milestone as much as they can.”

While every case is different, and certain types of cancer involve longer inpatient stays and medical restrictions, Northman says there are many ways that parents can work with their school and care team to help children return to the classroom on a regular or occasional basis.

These include:

Meet with school staff ahead of time:  Talk with your child’s teacher, principal, and school nurse about what attendance may look like over the school year, figuring that the first couple days after chemotherapy treatments are likely to be the toughest. See how classwork and homework can be modified to meet this schedule.

Explore 504 Plan or Individualized Education Program (IEP) eligibility: Discuss with school staff and caregivers if your child is eligible for either special educational services through an IEP, or accommodations through a 504 Plan. They can be extremely helpful in securing many of the items on this list.

Connect school officials with your care team: It is vital that both your care team and school team are kept in the loop about changes in health or behavior. Have one central person always reachable at both ends.

Work with teachers on best methods for all-parent communication: You will want to be able to send group emails or other messages if, for instance, your child is immune-compromised and he or she is more susceptible to viruses that other students in class may have picked up.

Arrange for tutoring when eligible: Tutors are provided during hospital stays, but every state has different rules regarding days when children are at home. In Massachusetts, if a child misses 14 or more days in a school year, he or she is eligible for a tutor supplied by the school. The 14 days do not need to be consecutive, so many cancer patients will be eligible.

Arrange for classroom accommodations: Ensure the classroom setting adequately meets your child’s needs.  For example, if your child needs frequent bathroom breaks, get a seat near the door; if he or she is having hearing or vision trouble, get a seat near the teacher.

Think about mobility limitations: A locker near the classroom, elevator privileges, and two sets of books (one for school, one for home) to lighten the backpack can make a huge difference.

Get allowance for hats, drinks, and snacks in class: Some schools have strict rules about clothing and food.  Talk to the school ahead of time. Hats to cover a bald head or thinning hair are very appreciated by kids in treatment, as are snacks to help with low energy.

Fit rest breaks into the school day: A nap in the nurse’s office can help your child have a fuller day at school. It’s better to be able to come and leave with peers if possible.

If your child can’t yet go to school, visit as soon as possible:  Seeing fellow students and the energy of the classroom can be invigorating and give your child something to look forward to when their health allows them to return.

This blog post originally appeared on Insight, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s blog.

Learn more about Dana-Farber Boston Children’s Back to School Support services.