Teachers need specific strategies for welcoming students who have complex medical needs
For Administrators

Tips for Teachers Working With Medically Fragile Students

By Brian Gatens November 20, 2014

When I tell people that one of my earliest post-college jobs was volunteer director at a camp for children with cancer, I usually get what I call the “sad head shake.” This is, of course, the natural reaction of someone who thinks that such a camp is a dark and difficult place.

Teachers need specific strategies for welcoming students who have complex medical needsInstead, it was perhaps the liveliest place I’ve ever worked. Surrounded by excited and happy children, fun challenges and wonderful campfire camaraderie, I couldn’t have asked for a better place to begin my work with children. Every year, without fail, I hear from former campers who are now grown with families of their own.

As this was over 20 years ago and long before our revolutionary societal change in attitude toward including all children in regular school settings, I remember campers and their families sharing their difficulties in getting schools to work with them to address difficult medical needs. Schools would push for home instruction or placements in schools far from their local school.

Fortunately, the world has moved on, and today’s schools are far more flexible about complex medical needs. When you’re called upon to open your classroom to a child (and their family) and help manage demanding medical requirements, keep these points in mind:

See the world from their point of view

In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch encouraged his daughter to not judge someone but instead to “climb inside his skin and walk around a bit.” It is essential to apply this idea to the child and the family. Until you have a sick child — or were one yourself — it will be impossible to understand the wide swath of emotions.

Do not presuppose an understanding of the experience or the expectations: Let the family guide your understanding and classroom management of the child’s needs. And, yes, sometimes a parent’s expectations will come across as unreasonable, but you need to see this in the context of their difficult situation.

Balance care and independence

All good teachers work to develop age-appropriate independence in their students. This doesn’t stop when a student has medical needs, but it does mean more attention must be paid to what the child can or cannot do.

This will be most successful with the input and guidance of the child and the parent. Parents will run the full spectrum regarding how independent they want their child to be, but working with them closely will enable you to maximize the growth of the child.

Get informed

Depending upon the complexity of the child’s illness, you’ll need to spend some time reading up on the nature of the challenges, the treatment and the effect on the child’s ability to learn.

This will help lower your anxiety, as most illnesses become less scary the more you know about them, and this in turn will help you work with the child. Also, the child and the parent will respect you spending time learning as much as you can.

Normalize, normalize, normalize

My biggest takeaway from working at the cancer camp was that children, more than anything else, want to be treated normally.

Being overly sensitive to their needs, making them avoid age-appropriate situations and otherwise making a child feel different is very difficult emotionally for everyone. Instead, find what a child can do within the bounds of their illness and bring their experience to that level.

Have fun

Laugh heartily and don’t hesitate to include them — and all your students — in all your class activities. If they can play second base during the class kickball game, send them out there to get dirty and maybe a bit scratched up.

Children, especially those who have spent time under the intense care of adults, crave the rough-and-tumble nature of childhood. Of course, keep it safe, but don’t hesitate to make it fun.

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