School-age children rely on school to be a home away from home. They have relationships with other adults and children, and school is the environment in which they gain mastery over a range of cognitive, emotional, and physical tasks. Families have different styles of managing information about a parent’s illness, and your family will develop their own ways of addressing these issues with the school. There are a few guidelines that you might consider as you figure out what will work best for your child:
You may want to choose one school staff member to be your point-person. This could be the principal, another administrator, a guidance counselor, the school nurse, or your younger child’s classroom teacher. Establish a mode of communication that will be easy and accessible. Ask your child if he wants the staff person to check in with him, or if he just wants to know that that person is available if he feels the need to talk about your illness. Some children like to have school be an oasis away from the effects of a parent’s illness and don’t want to have any conversation about the illness at school. It is also natural for many children and teenagers to feel self-conscious when teachers single them out or ask publicly about their parent’s health.
In the same way that you will communicate important changes at home to school staff, let them know that you also want to be informed about changes they observe in your child’s behavior, mood, or academic work so that you can respond to any indications of distress in your child. See below for a list of things to consider telling your school point-person.
In addition to an administrator or person in charge of communication, the school guidance counselor can also help by either checking in periodically with a child, or being available for a child who will initiate contact when they need to talk. You and this counselor will need to figure out together with your child how to best provide support that does not feel intrusive or stigmatizing in the presence of classmates.
The school community may reach out to your family in many ways. While some children may appreciate the involvement of their peers, others may not like the extra attention to something that is worrisome or makes them feel different.
For younger children who are dropped off or picked up from school, interactions between school staff and parents can be complicated. While the adults may find it a good time to exchange information and updates, a child may feel uncomfortable with the concerned looks or long faces from teachers that accompany an inquiry about a parent’s health. Try to keep these everyday routines upbeat, and save any significant or upsetting discussions for an e-mail or phone conversation. It is inevitable, though, that your children will overhear people talking, or have adults and peers talk directly with them about the illness, so be sure to let them know that you are interested in what people are saying and can talk with them about it.
Some children will not have any changes in their school performance after a parent becomes ill. It is not uncommon, though, for children to feel distracted or have a drop in grades in this situation. Children can have worries and sad feelings that make it hard to concentrate on learning. Sometimes it is the disruption in family routines that makes it difficult to have regular homework time or get help from the parent who usually helps with schoolwork. Often, the change at school is a temporary response. If you notice changes in your child’s interest in or ability to do schoolwork, let school staff know about it, so that there can be an immediate accommodation around schoolwork or arrangements for making up work later.
If the change lasts for more than four to six weeks, you need to work with the school to provide extra support so that your child doesn’t fall significantly behind. Talking with a school guidance counselor and the administration about the family stress allows them to make plans with your child’s teachers about extra tutoring or accommodations around deadlines. Be sure to check in with your child about these plans. He may need help adjusting to the extra attention and people talking to him about why he is having trouble with schoolwork. It is important, however, for your child to continue to have some expectations at school, so that he is able to maintain a sense of normalcy. Having no expectations or rules can contribute to a feeling that what is happening with a parent’s illness is too terrible to bear — and that no one expects him to be able to cope with it.
Many schools have significant health or science modules devoted to various illnesses. Check with your child’s teachers about this curriculum so that you can discuss your family’s situation directly with them, and talk with your child about their participation.