Contributor: Jamie Schwachter, BSN, MSN, NP-C
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It won’t be long before children will be heading back to school. If you’re a parent with cancer, it might be a good time to start thinking about having a talk with your child’s teachers, counselors or school administrator about your illness.
You may find it difficult to share such personal information. But remember that the school doesn’t need all of the details about your illness and treatment. Provide them with just enough information to understand what your child is going through. If you feel this conversation might be too much for you, talk with your spouse, another parent who has gone through this situation or the social worker at your cancer center about having this important discussion with the school staff.
There are several good reasons to talk with the people who are with your child for the majority of his or her day:
- Your child’s teacher is usually the first ones to notice changes in your child’s behavior. Children deal with stress in different ways, depending on their age and developmental stage. A preschooler might be angry and act out, while an adolescent may become withdrawn and highly unresponsive. If these reactions happen in the classroom, it will help your child if the school staff is well-informed, know your situation, and can use the chance to help your child. Also, teachers may see things that a busy parent dealing with a serious illness may overlook or be too distracted to notice. When the teacher picks up on these clues and then communicates that information to you, you can take steps to help your child.
- Your child’s teacher can tailor their teaching, classroom management and student interactions to help support your child. By knowing about your illness, your child’s teacher can make sure schoolwork avoids potentially sensitive topics. For example, a reading assignment involving a character with a serious illness could be upsetting for some children whose parents face health challenges. In addition, good teachers know their students’ personalities, where they fit in with the larger group and what their struggles are socially. So they can help your child to handle painful discussions, which can be prompted by well-meaning questions from their classmates. Teachers also can keep your child from being isolated and make sure they stay enmeshed in the life of the school.
- Your child’s teacher can become a confidant. If your child is struggling to cope, sometimes a trusted adult such as a teacher or school counselor can provide much-needed support. This adult can give your child accurate information, reassurance and reminders that showing emotions is OK. They can be someone to open up to who is not in the family circle and can provide perspective and encouragement. If your child has a trusted confidant, it means that he or she won’t have to go through this experience alone.
When you meet with the teacher, ask him or her to be your partner in keeping your child’s life as normal as possible. Also, be sure to talk with the school guidance counselor. He or she has special training and expertise that can help your child deal with circumstances at home. I often recommend this booklet to help parents have an age-appropriate conversation with their children about cancer.
Some children, especially teenagers, may not want you to talk to their teachers. This may stem from a worry about being different from their peers. And younger children should not have to shoulder adult worries. So consider talking to the teacher in private – if you cannot arrange a face-to-face meeting, at least communicate by email or phone. Later, let your children know that you have spoken with the teacher. This can pave the way for future conversations: Your teacher is there if you need him or her and already knows the situation.
Don’t hesitate to make specific requests of your child’s teachers. For example, if you find that your child is forgetting to do her homework, know that it’s all right to ask the teacher for a little extra support because your child might be distracted or needs time with you. Or your child may find a homework assignment, such as reading a book about a parent having cancer, too painful to complete.
Your child’s teachers and school staff can be powerful partners as you move through cancer treatment and beyond. Give them the information they need to help your child as much as they can.