For most children, the end of summer signals the transition back to school. But for children with cancers such as leukemia or lymphoma, back to school can happen at any time of the year. In fact, back to school can happen several times a year.
While parents might worry that returning to school after cancer treatment might overwhelm their child, school is a critical part of development and it is important to send them back as soon as possible. Returning to school helps the child regain a sense of “normal life” and independence, escape from the world of hospitals and appointments, and sends them a message that there is life after cancer and that they have a future to invest in.
Children view school as much as a place for fun and socialization as for learning. In fact, experts say that keeping a child out of school can lead to anxiety, depression and poor self esteem.
The Back to School Challenge
While returning to school may be important for the child with cancer’s development, it does present some challenges. The three main areas of concern are teachers and school personnel who likely do not have any experience with cancer, the child’s classmates that do not understand the condition, and the child’s own attitudes about going back to school.
Open Communication with the School
While it may seem like the furthest thing from your mind when your child is being treated for cancer, planning for their return to school happens long before the child is ready to go back. Early on in the diagnosis, you (or a helpful friend or family member) should contact the school principal or administrator to let them know what is happening with your child. It may be easiest to write a letter and let them know:
- The type of cancer your child has
- What kind of treatment you expect them to receive
- How long you expect they will be out of school
- Your plan to keep the school updated on your child’s progress
If you have other children that attend the same school, you will also want to identify this as well. Siblings will also be impacted by the changes in your family, and their behavior or performance at school may reflect this.
Closer to the return date you will want to cover more specific information with your child’s teachers. While it is very helpful to speak to them face to face to allow them to ask questions or raise concerns, you should also put some key points in writing so they can be referred to later and so that all the staff is getting consistent information.
This may include:
- Any physical limitations that may impact activities your child can participate in such as phys ed classes, or recess. You may also consider requesting the option of additional rest periods for your child while at school, or starting out with half days instead of full days
- Any medications or treatments your child will need to take while at school
- Any behavioral or academic changes that are anticipated after therapy
- Concerns your child has about returning to school
- Problems that require your immediate notification, for example nosebleeds, injury, fever, or nausea and vomiting
- Special consideration regarding exposure to infectious disease such as chicken pox (see more about this below)
Talking with Your Child’s Classmates
As with school staff, the best way to help your child re-integrate with his or her classmates is to keep them connected throughout school absences. Now that social media is a regular part of the everyday lives of kids, this can be made a little easier but good old- fashioned letters can also do the trick. Your child can post or send photos of his or her treatment and keep their friends in the loop with regular updates. At times when your child is feeling unwell, you or a sibling could keep the updates going.
This will help to take away some the scariness or mystery of what is keeping your child from school and may also help to prepare them for any physical changes, such as hair or weight loss.
When the time comes for your child to return to school, it may be helpful for a nurse or social worker from your cancer center come to your child’s class and do a presentation about their cancer and what to expect when they come back. Allowing the classmates to ask questions and express their fears is important at this time, and they should be reassured that your child’s cancer does not pose a risk or threat to them at all.