For Parents: Talking With Your Child's School

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Since your diagnosis, you may be as worried about your children's welfare as your own. As a consequence, you may wonder if you should alert your kids' school or other extracurricular programs about your family's changed circumstances. It may be difficult to do this, as it can be hard to share intimate details with people you don't know very well.

Most of us want to look strong and competent under pressure: all too often, this translates into "going it alone." Or, your kids may openly discourage your contacting the school because they don't want to be different or stick out in any way. They also may worry about being pitied. This may be a concern for parents as well.

Potential Benefits of Talking With Your Child's School

In spite of these barriers, you still might want to consider talking with a few key people at the school because:

  • Teachers see your children on a daily basis, and often are the first to notice changes in their behavior, mood, or performance.

    Perhaps your son is distracted or worried, and acts up in school. Perhaps your daughter provokes a rare fight with her best friend in the middle of class. If teachers know what's going on at home, they are in a better position to understand why your children might be behaving this way, and are more likely to be supportive to you and your family.

  • Teachers can be your first line of defense, bringing things to your attention that you might otherwise overlook.

    In this way, they can provide valuable assistance to both you and your children.

  • You can make a plan for staying in touch.

    so you both are confident you know what's going on.

Figuring Out the Details

Before you decide whether to contact the school, you might ask yourself some questions:

  • Is there anyone in the school I already know and trust?

    If so, you might start by contacting this person. If not, who has the potential to be the most helpful? Do you need an extra set of eyes to look for changes in your child's behavior? If so, a teacher might be the appropriate choice. Do you need more general information about school policy or child development? Then the principal or guidance counselor might be your choice.

  • Do I want the entire staff to know, or only a few key people?

    When you can, take some time to think about who you are in terms of your personality and style. Do you generally prefer to confide in one or two friends, or are you more comfortable having many people to whom you can turn?

    For elementary and middle school children, the primary teacher would probably be the most appropriate person to tell, at the least (and you can always enlarge your circle later.) For high school age children, the homeroom teacher or school counselor may be the most appropriate person.

    Thinking about how you have responded in other situations might help you make this decision. You might also consider whether you want to speak directly to each person you want to inform, or if you would like your key contact to pass on the news.

  • When should I get in touch?

    Ideally, you would have a chance to talk to the school shortly after learning of your diagnosis. This may not be possible, but even a brief conversation in which you describe your situation and outline your concerns might ease your mind. It may also be important to contact the school if there is a change in your treatment or situation, particularly if there is reason to think there may be additional stress at home.

What should I say?

While your conversations may be different, depending on the age and grade of your child, the following are some general guidelines that may help you plan your discussions with school personnel:

  • You might share information about your diagnosis and treatment.

    News like this travels fast, and you can squelch misinformation by being clear and direct about your diagnosis and treatment. If you know, you might share how the type and length of treatment may affect routines at home. ("While I am getting chemo for the next six weeks, we all might be a bit distracted and a little off our usual routine. So please forgive us if my son is late once in a while or forgets his homework.")

  • You might outline what you have already told your children, and ask that the school reinforce your message whenever possible.

    Try to be clear about what your children do and do not know, and what words you use to describe the illness. For example, if you have told your children that you are sick and need to go to the doctor to get better, but you have not yet used the word "cancer," ask the school to respect your decision.

    Also be specific about the approach you would like school personnel to take with your kids. For instance, you might suggest to a teacher, "Please don't tell my son, 'I feel so badly for you.' We are optimistic and it is more helpful to be encouraging." When others know how you are talking about your illness with your children, they often will try to adopt the same approach and strengthen your efforts.

  • You might share important information about your children.

    Certain events or times might be especially hard for your children. For example, you might be very tired on days following chemotherapy, and are less available to respond to your kids' demands. Also tell their teachers how your children typically react when they are worried, and what they find comforting.

How might the school be helpful?

  • Ask for ideas about how to stay in touch.

    Does the school have an email system? Is it easier and faster to phone or visit in person? Try to work out an approach that works for everyone.

  • Try to be as specific as possible when requesting help.

    For example, you might suggest to your child's 6th grade teacher, "Could you remind my daughter to put her homework assignments in her bag before she leaves school?" This type of request can save everyone a lot of headaches. At what point would you like the school to inform you that your child's academic work is slipping? Do you want to know about changes in friendships or other important relationships? What about asking the teacher to notify you whenever a major project or deadline approaches?

  • Ask if the curriculum includes any material that might be difficult for your child.

    For example, books dealing with illness or death or writing assignments in which students are asked to share major life challenges might be especially difficult for your children. Ask teachers and other appropriate staff to be sensitive to this possibility and to support your kids' efforts to complete these assignments.

  • Ask what other resources might be available to your children and family.

    The guidance counselor might be able to spend some extra time with your son or daughter or may simply be available on a drop-in basis when times get especially tough. The counselor may also know of local support groups for kids, or of other families in similar situations who would be willing to share experiences. The school may offer support in many different ways, but the staff may not think to mention them unless you ask.