Children with Cancer Face School-time Challenges

two children in yellow rain slickers walking to school in the rain

The first day of a new school year brings excitement, anticipation, and often jitters for many children.

But for children with cancer or another long-term illness, numerous, sometimes lengthy absences from school all year round create extra challenges.

Good communication among the child, parents, educators, and health care team can go a long way toward helping to make everything go more smoothly.

Return to school as soon as possible

Returning to school as soon as possible after a cancer diagnosis is one way to help keep challenges to a minimum. A quicker return means less schoolwork to make up, and restores a sense of normalcy to the child and the whole family.

No matter how well children keep up with schoolwork, readjusting to the school routine and reconnecting with friends becomes more complicated the longer and more frequent the absences. However, parents can take steps to ease the process, and they can start as soon as a child is diagnosed with cancer.

Communication is key

A good place to start is to find out what services are offered by your child’s treatment center. Examples of services may include classes and teachers right in the hospital, help in arranging home visits from your local school system, or help communicating with the school when your child is ready to go back.

Also, find out what services are offered by your school. Some schools have programs in place to coordinate information among educators, the health care team, and the family. If not, you should set up your own meeting. Include your child’s teacher, principal, and school nurse (if there is one). Ask the health care team to help you write a letter explaining your child’s needs. Include:

  • Any medicines your child will need to take and how to give them
  • Any special devices your child will use and how to use them
  • What kinds of problems to watch for and report to you
  • Emergency management of possible problems
  • Medicines, treatments, or activities that your child cannot have or do
  • Who to call with questions and emergency contact information

If you suspect your child has learning problems

Thanks to better treatments and vast improvements in survival rates, pediatric cancer researchers have been able to learn a lot about the effects cancer treatments have on children many years after treatment ends. Unfortunately, they’ve found that many childhood cancer survivors experience problems with learning and emotional development, with varying degrees of severity.

If your child seems to have a learning problem after treatment has ended, consider approaching a school psychologist or counselor to request testing. Testing will evaluate reading, writing, and math skills as well as memory, comprehension, attention, concentration, and fine motor skills.

Armed with that information, the school may suggest your child could benefit from an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or 504 Plan. If your child meets all of the strict legal requirements to qualify as a special education student, the plan is called an IEP; if not, it’s a 504 Plan.

An IEP or 504 Plan is developed by parents and teachers to meet the individual needs of a student. It describes a child’s learning problem, sets specific educational goals, and refers to other services that might be needed, such as occupational therapy or speech therapy. As a rule, the plan should be regularly evaluated, with adjustments made as necessary.

Reconnecting with friends

Returning to school after a long absence may be exciting for some children and scary for others. Children may be apprehensive about how they’ll be received by their friends, especially if their appearance has changed.

It may help younger children if a nurse or teacher explains to the class that cancer is not contagious, and no one did anything to cause it. Nurses, school liaisons, and school counselors can also help prepare the teacher and classmates for an older child’s or teen’s return to school. You may also want to see if a Look Good Feel Better for Teens program is available in your community. This free, community-based service helps boys and girls learn techniques to help restore their appearance and self-image during cancer treatments. The program is a collaboration among the American Cancer Society, the Personal Care Products Council and the Professional Beauty Association.

No matter your child’s age, talk with him or her about going back to school and being ready for questions classmates may have about the cancer. Explain to your child that friends may not understand much about cancer and might say and ask some strange things. Some typical questions are: “What is cancer?”, “Are you going to die?”, “Can I catch it?”, and “Can you still play?” Talk with your child about how to answer each of these questions. And prepare your child with brief answers they can give to many other questions:

  • Thanks for asking, but it’s kind of hard to talk about this at school.
  • I don’t know the answer to that question.
  • Maybe you can ask the teacher or the nurse about that.

Depending on the situation, your child might want to use one of these answers, then change the subject in a friendly way, maybe with talk about school, an offer to play, or another non-cancer-related topic.

Every child is different. Helping them figure out what feels best for them before they go back to school will help them deal with questions from friends and classmates in a way that feels right to them.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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