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Hints and Tips 101: Serious Illness in Kids and the School Setting

This is the first in a series of hints and tips for parents and carers engaging with schools in circumstances of serious illness or disability of a child in their care. As a regular series, we will offer practical strategies to deal with every-day type challenges encountered in the school setting in these circumstances.

Getting The Message Across To The School

When a child lives with, or is diagnosed with, a serious illness families are understandably focused on the medical issues.  This doesn’t take away their concern about their child missing school, as many readers will appreciate.

Who will you speak to at school? How will you approach the issue?

Research in Australia and from overseas on this issue, upholds that parents, health professionals and schools see joint communication as a key factor in supporting the educational and social needs of seriously sick kids. And that this communication needs to happen.

But schools are busy places. (So are hospitals and medical services, but the school is the focus, here.).  Parents and carers should never assume that because you told one teacher, or the principal, that the message will reach to all the people who need to know. Every staff member (including relief teachers) who interacts with a kid living with a serious medical condition needs to know how it impacts on the kid’s education and social relationships.

What to do?

Identify a single teacher, as a point of contact in the school, who you feel comfortable speaking to and whom you feel confident will pass on information to those “who need to know”. This teacher will be the liaison between you and the school.

It is best that the liaison person is an educator, rather than the school nurse, or the secretary, or counsellor, because education strategies will need to be discussed.

Implications of age at school

Primary/infants schools and secondary schools’ structures are all different. What does this mean?

For primary schools, the best liaison person is usually the class teacher. It might also be a member of the school executive, who can maintain oversight and filter information to a range of people. Regardless, it is important to tell the school Learning Support Teacher/s and the School Counsellor.

In secondary schools, either the Year Coordinator, Home Room Teacher, House Head (if in a school with that type of structure) should be identified as a liaison person.  Ensure that you formally communicate to the Principal, the School Counsellor and Learning Support Teacher (or area). Different schools call different structures different names, but work with the person you feel has the power and passion to drive the necessary adjustments for your child.

Less is not more

Cover all bases when communicating with the school, better to tell too many people than too few. Speak to the key people in person, and then follow up with a summary email in a positive and constructive tone.

Write down/record and date your discussions with the school so you have a reference point to return to for follow up. ****Research indicates that kids are likely to have better outcomes at school if a positive relationship is maintained, as far as possible, between the school and the family. Try to keep the tone of conversations, written communications and interactions in a collaborative frame.

How parents and carers can assist the school

From the outset, provide the school with a written, signed and dated letter granting them permission to share appropriate information regarding your child’s medical condition within the school teaching staff, for the purpose of educational adjustments. (Some schools may have an existing form, but don’t be afraid to initiate it and keep a copy for your own records.)

Get information (in writing) from the doctors regarding the known and likely physical, cognitive and emotional/behavioural effects of the illness and the medications. (You can ask the doctor for this at one of your regular appointments.)

If you think there are no impacts, at least ask the doctor that specific question in relation to the child’s education and school context. It’s reasonable to assume that you are not aware of every aspect, or the full extent, of the impacts. Every child and illness circumstance is different.

Ask your doctor to write a letter addressed to the school specifically outlining the potential educational impacts of the illness and ask him/her to specifically include a request for appropriate adjustments to be made to aid your child’s learning.

Parents and carers can be the most highly motivated advocates for their children and, where this is the case, it holds true in the school setting. It would be wonderful if it wasn’t necessary to advocate, but the reality is that it does make a positive difference.

The next offering in this series is: initial enrolment – what to look for in a school when you have a sick child.

Please send in your own experiences with a sick child in the school setting. Things that work for you (or don’t) and ask questions you want answered. We’re keen to get the conversation going and build a knowledge bank that will help us all.

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