When students encounter chronic illness, short-term illness, accidents, or other situations that require hospitalizations, they are confronted with many challenges. Despite having dedicated treatment teams and even receiving academic services while admitted, many student-patients are at a disadvantage as they transition back to school.
Extended absence from school not only creates difficulties reintegrating into the school environment and catching up on work, but illnesses can also result in additional academic difficulties that families and school personnel should be aware of.
Some of these academic difficulties resulting from illness may include (list compiled from the Georgia Dept. of Education):
- Anxiety of trying to catch-up on missed material
- Certain side effects from medical treatments may affect functioning in school, including drowsiness, fatigue, increased irritability and reduced attention span;
- Increased incidence of reading difficulties
- Difficulties integration into social aspects of school
- May increase past academic difficulties that teachers might not recognize as more than just an effect of the illness
Identifying & Addressing New or Increased Academic Difficulties
When students return to the school environment, teachers may not be fully aware of the educational implications that the student’s illness may have had on the child. According to Shaw et. al (2010) “Many chronic illnesses and injuries result in cognitive impairments from the disease or injury itself, from stress or anxiety from living with the disease, or as a result of the medications used to treat the symptoms.” Studies have shown that 3 out of 4 teachers feel unprepared to teach students with chronic illnesses (Duggan et. al., 2001), and that teacher misunderstanding of the implication of chronic illness and lack of information may lead to issues with appraising both symptoms and academic performance (Clay et. al., 2004).
Chronic illness is something that deeply impacts both students and school systems. In fact 17% of students age 18 or under suffer from a chronic illness that impacts academic performance. It is therefore important for school systems to have a plan in place to help both students and teachers with the transition back to the classroom, in order to adequately support the needs of the student-patient.
Social Difficulties in Academic Environments as a Result of Illness
In addition to challenges to learning or side effects that may lead academic difficulties, it is also important to be aware of potential social difficulties a student-patient may encounter, which can also affect their motivation and comfort level in attending class and completing tasks.
Awareness of peers’ perceptions or fear of being treated differently may cause additional anxiety for students with chronic illness or students returning to school from treatment programs. Other social and behavioral problems resulting from illness may include:
- Social discomfort after long absences
- Concerns about physical appearance (hair loss, amputations, wheelchair use, etc)
- Social Phobia or anxiety about meeting social demands
How to Help Reduce & Address Academic Difficulties for Student-Patients
There are a few ways to help ease the transition for student-patients back into the school environment and to support them through any academic difficulties that may arise.
- Bring key stakeholders (family, teacher, school personnel, medical doctor or team) together to create a transition plan for the student, including passing along pertinent information on the student’s symptoms, anticipated issues, and possible side effects of treatment. A student’s IEP or 504 plan should also be updated with any new information or modifications.
- Seek or provide training for school personnel on supporting students with chronic illness and those returning from various types of treatment. Ensure staff members are briefed in how to handle certain situations (including medical emergencies).
- Conduct regular check-ins with the student to gauge how they are feeling, both physically and in regards to being at school/with academics, in order to identify feelings of overwhelm or anxiety early on.
- Track academic difficulties and take steps to determine if they are related to symptoms, such as fatigue, or if there is a greater underlying problem. Don’t wait to intervene!
By thoughtfully preparing for a student-patient’s return to school, educators and school personnel can help ease the transition while identifying if additional or increased academic difficulties are present as a result of an illness, and take steps to remediate those difficulties.