Dealing with school

Getting back to school is vital for children with cancer. School helps them to feel 'normal' and reduces the isolation and loneliness which many children with cancer face.

Children undergoing treatment for cancer often have gaps in their education. This can be due to going into hospital, the side effects of treatment, or generally not feeling well enough to fully take part in daily school life.

Most children’s cancer hospitals have hospital schools that can support your child while they’re in hospital and communication between your child's teacher and the hospital school is essential.

Going back to school can be a relief for many children as a refuge from the world of hospitals and procedures – a place for fun, friends and learning. Going back to school can be a sign that life is returning to normal.

However, some children, especially teenagers, may dread going back to school. They may worry for the following reasons:

  • they look physically different eg. hair loss
  • they worry that they have fallen behind with school work
  • they worry that they will not 'fit' back in with their friends will have affected their friendships
  • they may have a fear of being bullied by other children athe school.

If treatment has affected your child’s ability to learn, this can be a major frustration for them and may affect their confidence and self-esteem. The school can give extra help for children with learning difficulties. Talk to the teachers at school if you think your child may have problems.

A cancer diagnosis can cause strong and often conflicting feelings in siblings of the child or young person. They will feel a number of emotions the same as parents but may also feel jealous and resentful of the attention given to the ill child, guilty that they are responsible for the illness or that they are not doing enough to help. Often, the place where siblings show how they feel is at school. It is a good idea to speak to the sibling's teacher so that they are aware of any issue.

'Welcome Back! A guide for teachers helping children and young people returning to school after a diagnosis of cancer' has been written by clinical experts together with teachers which covers all of the main issues and concerns of returning to school with some helpful tips and advice.

Keeping teachers informed

It’s important to let the school know how your child is doing. As soon as your child is diagnosed, contact the head teacher to tell them what’s happening. It can help to let the school know about the plans for treatment. The school teachers can then work with the hospital education department to make sure they cover the same work as the rest of the class.

At any stage of treatment, your child should be involved in letting the teacher know what information they would like to be shared with their classmates.

Risk of infection at school

For most children on cancer treatment returning to school is recommended, even when their immune system is low. It is important that they carry on with as normal a routine as possible. Most infections that children on cancer treatment pick up are not from other people or children. Chickenpox, measles or shingles can be dangerous to children who have a low immunity due to cancer treatment.

The school can develop a system to let other parents know that they should notify their child’s teacher if their child develops chickenpox, measles or shingles, so that appropriate action can be taken.

If your child has been exposed to chickenpox and has not had it before, contact the hospital straight away. It may be necessary to give your child some medicine to prevent chicken pox developing.

It can be difficult to get the balance right between letting your child mix with their friends and worrying that they might pick up an infection. You can discuss this with both the hospital staff and the teachers at school to make sure you’re happy with what your child does.

Keeping up with schoolwork

It’s important for your child to try to keep up with schoolwork whenever they can. Learning can continue outside school. By speaking regularly to the teacher, you’ll know which subjects are being covered. Often, the teacher will send assignments and materials home with siblings or arrangements can be made to collect them.

Your child should have an individual education plan in place. This plan can be shared between your child’s school and hospital school to ensure there is consistency in what is being taught.

To help your child keep up in school, you may need to ask for a special education statement. This qualifies your child for extra help.

Very young children

Many children diagnosed with cancer are very young and have not yet started school. As a parent, you may have to choose between having your child at nursery throughout treatment or keeping your child at home.

Keeping your child at home may mean they have less chance for social growth and development, but if they stay at nursery you may feel there’s a risk of infection. There is no right or wrong decision – it’s a personal choice for you to make. You may want to think about whether:

  • your child is already settled at nursery or pre-school
  • your child’s social needs can be met by siblings and/or other children outside of the nursery
  • your child is well enough to attend nursery or pre-school
  • your child has already had chickenpox

It may be useful for you to talk to your specialist nurse or social worker about nursery attendance and the support they can offer to help with this.