School represents normal life to most students. Going to school is more than just education – it establishes a familiar routine and provides a stable environment and an opportunity to socialise.
A diagnosis of cancer is a major disruption for the student and leads to frequent absences from school. Depending on the wishes of the student and their family, maintaining contact with school and classmates can be important for both social and academic reasons. This will help to prepare for the student’s return to school.
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Keeping in touch
Every situation is different. Not all families will want to maintain close contact with the school community, and a young child may not be able to respond to messages, depending on their age and symptoms.
However, many students receiving treatment for cancer do want to maintain contact with classmates. Young people with cancer find it easier to return to school if friendships have been maintained throughout their absence. Regular communication can provide reassurance that they’ve not been forgotten by their friends and help to keep them engaged with their education.
“Being given 25 letters at once was very overwhelming and made me feel very happy.”
The school community can keep in touch with a student while they are in hospital in a number of ways:
- Send postcards, letters, drawings or paintings.
- Make an audio or video recording of a school event, or of personal messages.
- Post a package of photos or small gifts.
- Email notes or photos.
- Consider age-appropriate programs such as Monkey in My Chair (see Education support programs below).
- Create a website or blog about what is happening at school.
- Use social networking or videoconferencing such as Skype, FaceTime or Google Drive to stay in touch and to allow the student to participate in classroom lessons.
- Organise visits to the hospital by classmates, if approved by the student’s parents. The student may have reduced immunity, so anyone with a cold, cough or other viral or infectious illness should reschedule their visit.
Supporting families throughout treatment
When a child or adolescent is diagnosed with cancer, the family may experience emotional strain, financial stress and increased anxiety. One parent may have to take time off work so they can be with the child in hospital, while siblings are often left with just one parent at home. The changing family dynamics and stress can lead to relationship issues. In single-parent families, the pressures can be even greater.
Families in regional schools face extra complications. The major centres for cancer treatment are usually in large cities, away from the family’s main support network. Often the student must travel great distances and stay away from home and school for long periods. One parent usually has to travel with the child, while the other parent stays home for work and to care for siblings.
School staff can link the family to school counselling services and offer support to any siblings who also attend the school. If your school has fees, the principal could consider how these can be adjusted to ease the family’s financial burden.
Fellow parents often play a key role in coordinating support when a child has cancer, particularly if there isn’t any extended family to help. With the family’s permission, they may organise a roster for meals, childminding or local transport (such as taking siblings to school, sport or other activities), or set up a fundraising website. A group of parents may organise this help among themselves, or it could be coordinated by the school’s parent association, such as the Parents & Citizens (P&C) or Parents & Friends (P&F).
Helping with schoolwork
It is natural for a parent to feel anxious about how the student is going to keep up with their schoolwork. Students may also worry about falling behind, particularly if that might mean being separated from their peer group when they do return to school. Talk to the student and the parents about their expectations, and how you can help maintain some form of ongoing learning.
“My parents encouraged me to give up Year 11 and do it next year, but I didn’t want to be left behind.”
Any school-aged student who has an extended hospital stay will be enrolled in a hospital school or hospital education service that caters for all school-aged students. A hospital school aims to provide continuity of education to make the return to school as easy as possible and to boost a young person’s spirits and self-esteem. To do this, the hospital school may contact the student’s regular school to discuss the educational program. Students attend a classroom or, if necessary, are visited on their ward by a teacher.
More children and adolescents are now receiving treatment as outpatients. This can make it difficult for them to visit the hospital school, but they may not be well enough to attend their regular school. If you know the student is spending long periods of time at home, liaise with the family and the hospital school to ensure they are receiving educational support and peer contact. They may be able to participate in distance education programs.
If the student transitions to high school or another new school, staff should share information about the student’s learning needs so that the appropriate plans can be put in place.
Ways to support an absent student
- Provide the hospital school with curriculum outlines and a list of textbooks.
- Send copies of worksheets and projects to the student at home or at the hospital school.
- Make sure the student receives school newsletters and handouts.
- Let the hospital school know if the student needs an extension or remediation program.
- Use educational social networking portals such as Edmodo to communicate with the student and the hospital school about their schoolwork.
- Find creative ways (such as Skype or video calls from class) to link the student with the school, especially if they are
away from home or in isolation.
- Understand that the student may be so unwell during their treatment that they may not be able to continue with their schoolwork.
Education support programs
A number of specialised programs are available to help students with cancer to keep up with their education.
Redkite is a national organisation that supports children, young people and their families through cancer. They offer grants to help young people aged up to 24 years achieve their work and study goals, and personalised assistance to help them get back on track with work, study or training.
While Redkite’s educational assistance is usually coordinated by hospital social workers, families and young people can also contact Redkite directly. You can help by making parents aware of Redkite’s support services, or by referring a student yourself.
Redkite also provides information, support and telephone and email counselling for young people diagnosed with cancer, their families and support networks. For more details, call 1800 REDKITE (1800 733 548), email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit redkite.org.au.
Ronald McDonald Learning Program
Provided by Ronald McDonald House Charities Australia, the Learning Program helps seriously ill children and adolescents as well as the parents and professionals who support them. The program includes various services:
- Individual tuition helps students catch up on their missed schooling – this can include speech and/or occupational therapy if required.
- A book called What about school? A resource for parents of children, adolescents and young adults with cancer is distributed nationally through oncology units in hospitals or can be downloaded in part from the Learning Program’s website.
- Education Liaison Coordinators support the ongoing education of students (see Hospital-based programs section below).
- EDMed, a free accredited professional development unit for teachers, helps schools to meet the educational needs of children with cancer and other serious illnesses.
To find out more about the Ronald McDonald Learning Program, visit learningprogram.rmhc.org.au or call 1300 307 642.
Some hospitals have specialised programs to prepare students for the return to regular school. In NSW, for example, the Back on Track program is available through the Sydney Children’s Hospital Network at Westmead and Randwick. You can read more about the program at fightcancer.org.au/back-on-track, or call the program at Westmead on 02 9845 0418.
Similarly, the Ronald McDonald Learning Program (see above) has Education Liaison Coordinators at hospitals in Randwick, Newcastle and Melbourne. These programs liaise and collaborate with families, schools, hospital schools and oncology units to keep the child connected to their learning, their peers and their school community.
Monkey in My Chair
“On his first day back at school, the kids were waiting for him and holding the monkey.”
The Monkey in My Chair program supports younger children while they are absent from school by providing a large toy monkey to sit in the absent child’s chair. The absent child also has a monkey. The class includes the monkey in all normal class activities and excursions, and photos are sent between children. For more information, visit missingschool.org.au/monkey-in-my-chair-news.
Access to tertiary study
In some states and territories, access schemes can help a student enter tertiary study if they have experienced long-term educational disadvantage because of a cancer diagnosis or treatment. Depending on the location, these are known as Schools Recommendation Schemes (SRS), Educational Access Schemes (EAS) or Special Entry Access Scheme (SEAS). Each university applies its own access scheme calculation to the student’s final score and determines if they will be admitted into their elected program of study.
Visit the website of the universities/tertiary admission centre in your state or territory to find out more about applying for an access scheme. If your state or territory does not have an access scheme, contact the tertiary institutions directly to find out if any alternative pathways are available to students. The school careers counsellor should also be able to offer guidance.
Grants for further study
School staff could explore whether there is any extra financial assistance available for the student. Redkite offers education grants to help students pursue tertiary study after cancer. Ronald McDonald House Charities offer the Charlie Bell Scholarship program.
Talking to a classmate with cancer
Like some adults, students sometimes worry so much about saying the wrong thing that they start to avoid a classmate who has cancer. Teachers can help by discussing the following tips with their students:
Acknowledge the situation – Students can say: “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know I care”, “We missed you”, “It’s good to see you”, “How are you going?” or “Is there any way I can help in class?”
Understand that their classmate might act a little differently – Their classmate may be more tired or less social than before. Students can show their support by being patient and accepting that it may take time to adjust.
Try to talk normally about day-to-day things – Their classmate is probably tired of talking about cancer all the time. But the students also need to understand that their classmate might not be interested in trivial topics such as the latest celebrity gossip.
Take cues from their classmate with cancer – People who have had cancer react in different ways. By observing how their classmate behaves, students might work out how to respond.