Going Back to School: Helping Your Child Return to School After a Long Absence
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 to school after a long absence due to an illness, injury or precautionary social distancing, these emotions can be even stronger.
While nerves are natural and you know it can take time to adjust, seeing your child struggle can be hard. You’re likely nervous yourself. You might worry they have fallen behind. Or 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.
How to Help Your Child Return to School After a Long Absence
Fortunately, there are a variety of things you can do to help prepare both the school and your child for their return.
(Worried about your other children managing school after their sibling’s diagnosis? Our Coping Tips for Siblings page and Sibling School Form can help!)
Preparing the School to Support Your Child
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 to ease the transition. Your child’s teachers, guidance counselor and school nurse are all likely happy to help.
You’ll want to ensure the school staff understands your child’s illness/injury 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. And of course, you can share our School page for additional information on how to support a child with an illness or injury.
Additionally, 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. As every area is different, you should contact your school district to learn more about this process and how to get started. However, many illness-specific organizations also have useful information and templates to help you prepare.
Finally, 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. And 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 to Return to School
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. Brainstorming solutions and 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 to prepare your child for questions about their illness/injury can be found on our Parents page).
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.
Once your child returns, be sure to check in regularly to see how things are going. They likely will be burned out at the end of the day, so don’t start asking questions as soon as they walk in the door. Rather wait for a quiet time when they are relaxed and refreshed. Then ask what’s working, what’s not, or if they have any remaining/new concerns. And remember, if they don’t feel like talking, don’t pressure them. Simply let them know you are there when they’re ready and will support them however you can.
Additional Support for Your Child
All this preparation may seem overwhelming, but it’s important to remember: you are not alone. Your child has a larger team of support they can lean on. 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 is also a good idea 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!
Want more help managing school for your child? Visit our Parents/Caregiver page for additional information and resources for when your child goes back to school.