School and Hospital
In August 2021, Laura, a primary school teacher and a mum of a child who had leukaemia, joined the Hospital Parents Peer Group to share her tips and tricks on keeping up with schooling in the hospital.
If your child will be spending a long time in hospital, or if they have frequent shorter visits, you can enrol them into the Hospital School. The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Sydney Children’s Hospital Randwick, and John Hunter Hospital all have hospital schools on site. Some other larger hospitals in Sydney and regional areas offer a hospital school program too. All hospital schools are run by the Department of Education, and they follow the NSW curriculum. With parents’ permission, they will liaise with your child’s local school to align teaching plans with your local school. Depending on current infection control processes, and your child’s condition, your child may attend school on site at the hospital, or the teacher may come to the bedside. These schools are equipped to teach children with both intellectual and/or physical disabilities, in addition to siblings of hospitalised children.
What learning equipment does my child need in hospital?
- An iPad or laptop with a camera and microphone to attend zoom sessions (see resource list below if you don’t have one)
- Plain pencil case, plain lead pencil, sharpener, and an eraser (the hospital might give you lots of interesting stationary, but this can be overwhelming for some children!)
- If your child responds to goal charts in hospital (like injection goal charts) you could continue to use these with schooling. Some children do not respond well to these, so consider whether it is right for your family.
- Use the whiteboard at the end of the hospital bed to write up your plan for the day, this will help your child and the nursing staff to schedule learning around treatment requirements
Staying in touch with local school
Even if you enrol in the hospital school, it is very important to stay in touch with your local school. Regular, positive contact with the teacher is important; it might prompt your local teacher to include your child in certain activities that they can participate in from hospital. The teacher might send homework, but this will mostly be reinforcing concepts, not new teaching.
The school counsellor and learning support team can assist with transitioning back into the classroom after an extended hospital stay. They may be able to facilitate friendships while your child is absent – for example, organising a zoom with school friends. You could ask the school counsellor to update the other children in the classroom about your child’s hospitalisation in a developmentally appropriate way, taking the burden off your child and your family when they return. You should have regular meetings with the learning support staff member(s) throughout the year. Ensure you keep them updated with any new diagnosis or treatment plans; this may enable the school to apply for more support for your child.
Staying in touch with the school office
It is also helpful to keep contact with the staff working in the school’s front office. Sometimes the processes and medical documentation required from schools can be confusing and overwhelming; a supportive office staff member will make this much easier to understand. With all the correct paperwork completed, it will be a much smoother transition back to the classroom after a prolonged hospitalisation. It also helps to stay in the know about things happening at school – for example, the front office will know to contact you immediately if there is an infectious disease outbreak (and your child is susceptible).
The charity Missing School can organise ‘Telepresence’ robots in your child’s classroom. This allows your child to listen and contribute in real time and feel connected with their peers. However, some children find this experience overwhelming or embarrassing, and so it needs to be implemented with teachers receiving training on how to best integrate the robot into the classroom.
Psychological support – what we would do differently, how sad she was, mental health impact on schooling
The hospital journey can have significant psychological impacts on your child. Supporting your child’s mental wellbeing is essential before any learning can take place. The hospital can offer counselling, psychology, or social work services as necessary. The social worker can also connect your family to organisations which can help. You may wish to see your GP for a mental health care plan, or contact Carers NSW, to improve your mental wellbeing and enable you to effectively support your child.
The major children’s hospitals also offer art, music, and child life therapy. These therapies can assist your child’s mental wellbeing as well as their learning – they might help with fine motor and handwriting skills, or literacy work in writing song lyrics.
If you find your child is becoming anxious with a task, having a brain break can help. At home, this might be something as simple as watering some indoor plants or taking the bins out. In hospital (infection control rules permitting) you could do a walking lap of the ward. If your child can’t get out of bed, you could play a game of hide and seek with a toy. Your child closes their eyes, and you hide a toy somewhere visible in their room so that they can find it by looking around the room from the bed. This process requires enough concentration that it can distract from their anxiety.
Building your child’s life outside of hospital as much as possible will help both their mental wellbeing and their learning. Some of the most valuable learning experiences can happen outside the classroom – for example, Laura’s daughter was supported by her local fire station and surf lifesaving club. Your local library will be able to help you find books about your child’s interests, at an appropriate level for them. Playdates with a close friend (by zoom if immunocompromised) will help your child maintain and develop their social skills and sense of belonging. Keeping contact with Out Of School Hours (OOSH) carers helped Laura’s daughter feel connected during her hospital journey.
During the hospital journey, it can be difficult to keep on top of any siblings’ needs. Siblings can attend the hospital school while your child is in hospital, so they do not miss out on any schooling. It is worthwhile trying to keep in contact with their school or preschool, as the sibling experience can be very challenging and confusing. Siblings Australia provides free resources and support for siblings and parents.
Ronald McDonald House Charities provides assessment and up to four school terms worth of tutoring, and/or speech or occupational therapy, as required. It is provided by RMHC tutors and can be accessed on school grounds. They also provide education to teachers on educational strategies and how to integrate children back into the classroom.
Variety provide grants to assist with the purchase of technology or supplies for education, such as an iPad or laptop, school uniform, or stationery.
Sydney Children’s Hospital and The Children’s Hospital Westmead provide the Back on Track program for children with cancer, where a teacher provides one-to-one support with learning and schooling.
Red Kite (Children’s cancer charity) provides educational grants and scholarships to children and their siblings. They also run a book club with age-appropriate books about the cancer journey.
Other programs may be available, depending on your child’s age and diagnosis. Speak to your child’s social worker for more ideas and support.