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Posted by Pamela Jones in Fair Is Not Equal on May 06, 2013

Supporting Students (and Students' Families) With Health Issues

In January Child Life faculty member Deb Vilas wrote a wonderful post for us titled: When Chronic Illness Comes to School. We felt the topic was of such importance we've decide to continue the theme here.

Students who present with health issues, like diabetes or asthma, are dealing with a wide range of emotions and uncertainty. On the message board, Children with Diabetes Forum, one person mentioned, "No wonder he is angry, resentful, depressed, unhappy, etc. He is old enough at 8 to understand intellectually that he has a disease, but that doesn't mean he can understand and accept it emotionally.” In the daily hustle and bustle of the classroom, it’s sometimes easy to forget about the emotional toll exacted when our students and their families are dealing with a health issue. 

What we may see is a student who refuses to complete work or comply with a set of directions. This frustrates us in the moment and we even ask ourselves, “Why won’t she listen? She knows what I expect!”  However, our rules, routines, and procedures do little to help these students cope with the vast array of emotions they have raging inside of them. We may even see parents who present with frustration, anxiety, and even anger when trying to support their children.  What does all of this mean? It means that families and their children need a different type of support and understanding from what we provide to make the classroom run smoothly.  With this information in hand, our charge is to find better ways to support our students and their families as they cope with these health issues. 

As we culled the literature, two pieces of information emerged: (1) students with health-related issues need help in redefining their relationships with significant others (including teachers, friends, parents, other family) and (2) students need help redefining their identities in the face of their illness (Sparud-Lundin, Ohrn & Danielson, 2009). 

Redefining Relationships: What Teachers Can Do to Help

First, it’s important to note that teachers aren’t clinicians! You are not expected to do the work of a therapist. This does not mean, however, that there aren’t things you can do to support relationship- and trust-building with your students and their families. Some ideas for what you can do include the following:

  • Find Additional Opportunities to Dialogue with Your Students: Time is short in the life of a teacher; we know this all too well! Still, you can steal 5-10 minutes at different points throughout the week. For example, you can have regular lunch talks with this student once a week. You can also form a small (i.e., 3-4 students) conversation group where students have the chance to build up trust in you, since you are one of the most important adults in their lives. Finally, consider using a journal that will go back and forth between you and the student; make it low-pressure by allowing the student to capture his/her thoughts and feelings in written or pictorial form.
  • Create Additional Opportunities to Dialogue with Your Students’ Families: It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day hustle-and-bustle of teaching and sometimes, we only communicate with our students’ families when the big ticket items come up—conferences, whole school events, serious misbehavior, etc. Unfortunately, big ticket-item communication does little in the way of building relationships with our students’ families, and this is exactly what we’ll need when helping our families process the myriad emotions they’ll experience as their children grapple with health issues. Get into the habit of sending home simple notes and/or making calls on a more consistent basis. The more comfortable families become talking to you, the better able you’ll be to talk to them when health issues flare up and disrupt their children’s school experience.
  • Foster Additional Communication Between Your Students and their Families: Sometimes, teachers can be the best people to facilitate conversations around difficult topics. This can start by providing families with resource information. It’s also a good idea for you to reach out to the school guidance counselor/social worker to help you facilitate these conversations. It may be the case that children are hesitant to share their feelings for a host of reasons and the same can be said for families; this is why finding ways for families and their children to talk openly and honestly about the child’s illness can go along way. 

 Redefining Identities in the Face of Their Illness

  • Help Your Students Identify What They Are Feeling: We believe strongly in creating and implementing an emotions’ curriculum with our students. When done well, these curricula help our students increase their emotional intelligence, which helps them grow as individuals. Find and use key texts that help your students understand their emotions better. Another idea is for you to provide them with the chance to do an emotions’ check-in everyday—either verbally, or in writing.
  • Help Your Students Voice How They Feel Their Illness Has Changed Them: Using read-alouds and short writing activities, you can help your students begin to make sense of how their illness has changed them. The key is to make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that whatever they feel is okay and that it’s completely natural that they feel like a different person in the face of their illness. The website goodreads provides a great list of books for children with chronic illness.

By taking some of these steps, you’ll be better equipped to support your students and their families when they’re dealing with illnesses. 

Have you dealt with this in the course of your teaching career? Let us know; we’d like to hear your stories.

tagged chronic illness, communication, emotional literacy, illness, relationships
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