Supporting your student returning to school after cancer treatment

Supporting your student returning to school after cancer treatment

When your student comes back to school after cancer it can be a good sign that their life is returning to their 'new normal'.

Key points to remember

  • appoint a key contact person to talk to your student's family
  • your school should incorporate information about your student's cancer to inform a plan for them
  • with family/whānau consent, it is a good idea to talk about your student's cancer and treatment with your class before your student returns
  • talk with your student's health school teacher about their return to school

A boy and his teacher at school

This is part of a whole section on education when a child has cancer for teachers. We also have a section for parents.

When your student comes back to school after cancer, it can be a good sign that their life is returning their 'new normal'.

It can, however, be an emotionally challenging time for you as a teacher (as well as the student and their family/whānau).  

Communication is key

It is a good idea to have one key contact person at your school or early learning centre to talk to your student's family/whānau. This could be you, the syndicate leader or deputy principal.

"I was a bit anxious about him being teased – a couple of kids mentioned it but that was about it". Christina, Noah's mum.

If possible, it is a good idea to meet your student's parents/caregivers to talk about how they are feeling about their child's return to school. This way you can understand your student's fears and any concerns they or their family/whānau may have.

It may be possible for someone to come and talk to the class about cancer and treatment. This could be a nurse, a Child Cancer Foundation family support coordinator, a Leukaemia & Blood Cancer coordinator or CanTeen youth support coordinator who knows your student.

It is important to realise that returning to school may well be a stressful time for your student's family/whānau.

You can help by acknowledging the difficulties they have faced as well as offering encouragement for taking things one day at a time.

It is important that the school/early learning centre and parents work collaboratively together to ensure a smooth transition back to school.

Some families may also want to keep a cancer diagnosis private. While this can be challenging for your school, it is vital to respect the family's/whānau wishes.

Medical information

Your school should ask the family/whānau for basic information about your student's cancer and treatment. This should include:

  • what treatment they will receive
  • possible physical and emotional side effects
  • what your student knows about the cancer
  • any medication they need and when they should take it
  • a rough schedule of treatment, procedures or tests which may result in your student's absence from school

Families receive copies of medical letters which they may choose to share with the school.

As chemotherapy suppresses the immune system, measles and chickenpox can be very dangerous to children going through cancer treatment.

It is important for schools to let your student's parents know straightaway if there are any students with these infectious diseases. There is a suggested letter that you can send to parents on this website.

Parents will appreciate knowing your school has a plan around how to help protect their child's immunity.

Protecting children with cancer from measles, Leroy Beckett - A Ministry of Health video.

Transcript available on the Ministry of Health website.

Concerns your student may have

While many children will be excited to return to school as soon as possible, others may have some concerns.

"Everything went well when I went back to school because the teachers and class were really supportive." Jorja.

Many young people return to school feeling 'different' to how they felt before treatment.

Common concerns include:

  • loss of identify
  • social anxiety
  • fear and worry about failure
  • lack of self-confidence
  • worrying about what their capabilities and how to manage full days of school
  • the possibility of having to repeat a year with a younger age group

Young people with cancer also often worry about people staring or commenting on their appearance and having to repeat a year with a younger age group away from peers after missing so much school.

Meet with your student and their family/whānau to discuss their goals and concerns.  By working together to build a strength based-plan for your student's learning, you will be able to address many of their concerns. You can also discuss whether an Individual Education Plan (IEP) is appropriate. Your student will cope far better knowing what to expect and how to respond.

"The principal hand-picked a teacher for my daughter. He carefully considered who would work really well with her. That was huge". Roanne, Quinn's mum.

Managing expectations

Sometimes both teachers and parents can have unrealistic expectations about a child's academic performance after returning from cancer treatment.

Work with your student and their family/whānau to set realistic short-term goals. It is important to review these goals with your student and their family/whānau to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Sometimes there can be long-term effects of cancer treatment that can affect a student's ability to learn. However, for many students, their ability to learn at a normal rate will be unaffected. Read more about How late effects can affect your student's learning.

Preparing classmates for a child's return

Talk with your student and family/whānau about how much information they are comfortable sharing with their classmates. This will help you handle any questions classmates have before your student returns to school.

Both staff and classmates should prepare for potential physical changes to your student.

These can include:

  • hair loss
  • weight loss or gain
  • swollen face
  • scars
  • tiredness

See Resources about cancer for books and lesson plans that you can use.

After treatment, some children may also display some of these emotional side effects:

  • loss of self-confidence
  • fluctuations in emotions
  • increase in frustrations (such as tantrums)

It is important to encourage your students to treat their classmate who has had cancer the same as they did before.

With the family's/whānau permission, you could read one of the storybooks that deal with different types of cancer- see Resources about cancer.

Encourage your students to ask how they can help their classmate. Some young people like and appreciate help while others would prefer people not to make a fuss of them. It is normal for children to have lots of questions about their classmate. See Common questions kids ask about cancer for some suggested answers to these questions.

Side effects of cancer treatment

In an emergency, dial 111 within New Zealand (use the appropriate emergency number in other countries).

Medications can help with many side effects such as nausea, vomiting and fatigue. That means these side effects shouldn't seriously affect your student's daily life.

If your student appears to be experiencing more serious side effects in the classroom then consult their care plan or contact your student's parents. In an emergency, dial 111 within New Zealand (use the appropriate emergency number in other countries).

School rules - making allowances

"Teachers at my school were supportive and made sure that I had all the notes and resources needed to complete the standards my classes were currently working on." Teri.

While it is important to treat your student returning with cancer like any other student, you can also make some allowances.

Consider relaxing rules such as allowing your student with cancer to:

  • wear a hat, scarf or bandana in class
  • wear more comfortable non-regulation uniform
  • stay inside at lunchtime
  • drink fluids in class
  • take a nap

Make sure the wider teaching team know about these allowances so that the student does not have to explain themselves repeatedly.

It may be tempting to send your student home if they become too tired. Often it is better to let them take a nap in the corner of the classroom (for example, on a beanbag). This way they can still be part of the class and return to their desk once they are feeling better.

It's a good idea to create a 'do's' and 'don'ts' list with your student so that staff and other students know how to respond to certain situations.

Transition points

When your student is changing classes or schools, make sure there is a comprehensive handover of your student's progress and goals. This will help ensure your student does not lose any gains made since their return to school. Important information could include progress against the curriculum, identified academic and wellbeing goals and effective support strategies.

The pages in the childhood cancer and education section of this website have been developed in collaboration with the National Child Cancer Network (NZ), and the Ministry of Education. Content has been approved by the National Child Cancer Network (NZ).

This page last reviewed 20 August 2018.
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