The news of a student’s diagnosis may come as a shock to many people in your school community. There are a number of ways that the principal, teachers and other school staff can provide support to the student and their family at this time. If the news of the diagnosis is shared with students, the student’s friends and classmates may also need comfort and reassurance.
“The main thing I wanted was for them to be kind to my kids, and they were. Everyone just wanted to know how to help…”
Topics on this page:
- Initial steps after a student’s diagnosis
- Setting up a communication channel
- Supporting the classmates of a newly diagnosed student
Initial steps after a student's diagnosis
It is difficult for a family to receive the upsetting news of their child’s life-threatening illness, and they often describe the days and weeks after diagnosis as a whirlwind. Family members not only have to come to grips with the diagnosis, but they also have to make decisions about their child’s treatment protocol and inform their extended family network. Siblings of the child sometimes feel forgotten in the midst of a diagnosis and may need particular support from the school at this time.
While the family is coming to terms with the diagnosis, they may not tell the school about it. Teachers or peers may notice a student’s absence or speculate about any changes in the student’s behaviour.
You should follow up if you are concerned about a student’s health or wellbeing, either by raising your concerns with the principal or discussing them with the family directly. Try to minimise rumours if you suspect (or have confirmed in confidence) that the student has cancer.
Many families find that once the treatment has started and they have adjusted to the overwhelming situation, they feel more comfortable sharing information with the school and are more open to contact from teachers and students.
Once the family has told you about the cancer diagnosis, you can take a number of steps to ensure the student is well supported by the school community.
Take the lead – Offer your support to the family. Explain that a school liaison person can be appointed so they only have to communicate with one person.
Ask who can be told – Establish if and how the family would like information about the student’s diagnosis and treatment to be shared with teachers and the rest of the school community.
Respect their wishes – Allow the family time to decide what role they would like the school to play. If they want to keep the diagnosis private, staff should comply with their decision (unless there are overriding health and safety issues). At some stage, you may feel that it would be in the student’s interest to share the diagnosis. Try to arrange a meeting with the family to discuss the issue – you may want to contact the student wellbeing coordinator or school counsellor for advice on how to approach this conversation.
Arrange a meeting – Organise a meeting between the family and key staff such as the principal, the class teacher or year adviser, and the school counsellor. If the family has had to travel for treatment, a conference call may be useful.
Support siblings – Staff can play a key role in helping any siblings of the student who attend the school.
Work out the time frame – Consider how long the student may be away from school and how long their treatment may last. Some students with cancer are in and out of hospital for months, or even years. These students will need support throughout this time, which may involve a change of grade and teacher. Ask for a letter from the doctor to explain prolonged absences or sporadic attendance, and an individual health care plan to support staff in sick bay.
Get professional help – Offer to link the student and family with school counselling services. With a parent’s permission, staff from the hospital may be able to visit the school to discuss the student’s diagnosis and treatment with staff and classmates.
Contact Cancer Council – Call 13 11 20 for further information on cancer, treatment, and support services.
Setting up a communication channel
Talking openly about the cancer diagnosis helps the school community adjust to the news, and helps the school understand what support the student needs. Ask the family what the student knows about the cancer and how the student has responded. Some families limit the information the child has about the cancer, especially if the child is young.
Schools have various ways of disseminating information to their community. Your school should work with the student and their family to find out who in the school community needs to know and how much they should be told.
The family, school staff members and the key liaison person should discuss the family’s wishes and school policies for sharing information. Different families may need different communication styles. For example, some may want you, or one of your colleagues, to talk to their child’s classmates about cancer. Others may want the school to send a general letter to parents about cancer without mentioning the child’s name. The school’s parent association, such as the Parents and Citizens (P&C) or Parents and Friends (P&F), may be able to help the school communicate with families.
“My daughter’s friends are very caring, and they’d all have a good cry together out of the blue. I’d ask, ‘What’s going on?’, and they’d say, ‘No, it’s got nothing to do with you.'”
– Sarah, mother of secondary student with cancer
Be mindful of the student’s close friends, as they may be deeply affected by the news. It can be very reassuring for the student if their friends find ways to show their support.
Supporting the classmates of a newly diagnosed student
If you are telling students about a classmate’s cancer, parents need to be aware that their children may come home upset, worried or with questions. The principal can send an email or a note home to prepare the parents.
“I explained what would happen when he went to hospital. I didn’t get too detailed, but I was open to questions. They were pleased to be told the truth.“
– John, primary schoolteacher of student with cancer
You can expect a range of responses from students to the news. It’s important to remember that everyone reacts differently to a stressful situation. Some students may be visibly upset. Others could be angry, confused or annoyed. Some may have no outward reaction to the news.
Give the students opportunities to voice their feelings or ask questions. They might ask some difficult or sensitive questions, such as:
- How did they get sick?
- Can I catch it?
- Will they die?
- Will they miss school?
- What am I supposed to say or do?
- How can I be a friend to someone with cancer?
- Should I share things that are bothering me? They seem silly or trivial compared to what my friend is going through.
You should approach the class in a sensitive manner. In some cases, a member of the patient’s treatment team (such as the clinical nurse consultant) may visit the school to explain what is happening to their classmate and how the student will look and feel when they return.
Refer to our guidelines for supporting students of different ages, our suggestions for helping young people understand cancer, and our tips for talking to a classmate with cancer. To prepare for potential questions about death, read What death and grief mean to young people.
Try to establish beforehand if some students are more likely to be upset because of their friendship with a classmate with cancer. If a student becomes very distressed, they may need to speak with a counsellor or teacher with whom they feel comfortable. Contact the parents to let them know about their child’s distress.
Keep classmates regularly informed of the student’s progress. This will help to keep the class connected and prepare them for the student’s return. Events such as fundraising for cancer charities may help channel the thoughts and energies of older classmates.
Siblings of students with cancer need particular support. You can read more about helping siblings here.