Back to School: Helping Your Child Return to School After a Life-Changing Illness or Injury

 September 7, 2019

For most kids, the first day of school is both exciting (new school supplies, new clothes, new friends!), and nerve-wracking (new teachers, new schedules, new friends!). When a child returns after an extended period due to an illness or injury, these emotions can be even stronger.

While nerves are natural, as a parent, seeing your child struggle can be hard to watch. You’re likely nervous yourself! You might worry they have fallen behind. Or maybe you’re concerned their friends have moved on. If their illness, injury or treatment has changed their appearance, and/or if they have continued medical needs, it can get even more complicated.

Fortunately, there are a variety of things you can do to help prepare both the school and your child for a great start.

How to Help Your Child Return to School After a Long Absence

Preparing the School

While you may have been in contact with the school throughout your child’s absence, now that he/she is returning, open communication is more important than ever. Reach out as early as possible to discuss your child’s needs and make a plan. Your child’s teachers, guidance counselor and school nurse are all likely happy to help.

If your child has a chronic illness or medical complexities, and you live in the US, they are likely covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act and can get a 504 plan. A 504 Plan is an action plan to protect your child’s needs and help them achieve their academic goals. You can contact your school district to learn more about this process and how to get started. Many illness-specific organizations also have useful information and templates to help you prepare.

You’ll want to ensure the school staff understands your child’s illness and how it may impact how they function. To make this process easier, some parents have their child’s doctor write a letter outlining their condition, symptoms, issues to watch for, and necessary accommodations. Social workers and physical or occupational therapists may also be useful in completing this letter.

Additionally, be sure to inform the school staff of any medications your child takes, and side effects they may see. You may also want to ask about tutoring assistance if they’ve fallen behind. Finally, create a plan to stay in touch and monitor how they are adjusting. This will not only help catch any problems early, but hopefully give you more peace of mind.

Preparing Your Child

Your child is likely a bundle of nerves and may have mixed feelings about going back to school. The most important thing you can do is talk with them and listen to their worries. Helping them name their fears and feelings can make it all a bit more manageable.

Next, you can work together to address their concerns. Role playing may be very helpful here. For example, most kids worry about how to answer questions from their peers. You can help them prepare by practicing what they want to say if classmates ask what happened to them, why they were out of school, whether their illness is something that others can “catch” (i.e. contagious), etc. If they’ve had changes in their appearance, will be using medical equipment, or have activity restrictions, think about how to talk about those topics as well. (Suggested phrases and additional tips can be found here).

You can also practice their school routine, gradually easing into the new schedule a week or two in advance. This is especially important with waking and bedtime, but it can also be helpful to run through their morning routine or even visit the school to find the best way to get to class.

All this preparation may seem overwhelming, but it’s important to remember it’s not all on you. You child has a larger team of support they can lean on at this time. Help them identify a specific person at school to speak with if they have any problems or concerns. This could be a teacher, counselor or coach. Talk with that person or, if your child is older, help them to talk with that person, to ensure they know of the plan and are available.

Your child’s healthcare team can also be a great resource. Ask about any school re-entry programs that may be offered to help transition back. If your son/daughter sees a psychologist, it can also be helpful to plan an appointment or two in the weeks leading up to their return. Finally, if applicable, you can work with their physical and/or occupational therapist on any goals that might make going to school easier. For example, they might focus on fine motor skills to help with writing or building strength to prepare to climb stairs.

Above all else, have patience. It will take time for everyone to find a new rhythm and adjust. Mistakes will happen and some things will slip through the cracks. But have faith – it will become easier in time. Soon you may be most concerned with whether they remember their homework!

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