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Managing big feelings when going back to school

It’s that time of year again, dusting off the school uniforms, shopping for school supplies, thinking about creative lunch box and snack ideas as we forge ahead into a new school year.  

As parents or carers, the start of a new school year can stir up many emotions. Children, young people and parents may experience hope for a successful school year, excitement to connect with friends and teachers and undoubtedly, anticipation for what is in store for this new school year.    

This time of year can bring a lot of other feelings and emotions when you are caring for a child diagnosed with cancer or have a child returning to school following the completion of their cancer treatment.  

  • Relationships with classmates – ‘How will child adjust and reconnect; will they be teased because they look different?’  
  • Health worries – ‘What if they catch a cold or other illness from someone, how do I as a parent, protect them if I’m not there?’  
  • Missed lessons – ‘How are they going to catch up with their schoolwork and not fall behind.’  
  • Energy levels – ‘Will they have enough energy to get through the whole day?’ 
  • Workplace flexibility – ‘Will my employer give me the flexibility to take off if needed when I return to work?’
  • Loss of identity – ‘I’m not the person I was before cancer.’ 
  • Fear and worry about failure – ‘What if I fail and need to repeat a year?’ 
  • Being bullied or teased – ‘Are other students going to make fun of me because I’m different?’ 
  • Feeling their classmates don’t understand – ‘They think everything is back to normal, but it isn’t.’ 
  • Worries if they can maintain full school days – ‘The other kids will notice if I leave early, what do I say?’ 

These are all real worries that parents, carers and students often talk about during the cancer experience.   

Firstly, being aware of the effects of cancer treatment on a student’s learning journey is important, as it often means ongoing educational support throughout their school years. Some students may come across challenges, notably in higher order thinking skills. These difficulties may show up in various forms, such as note taking or issues with remembering information, difficulty with concentration, starting tasks or meeting assignment deadlines. As a result, these hurdles might lead to a lack of interest in their classwork and disruptive behaviour in the classroom [1]. 

As a parent, carer, teacher, or other support person, planning for a student’s return to school can give them reassurance and comfort knowing there is a support team available. 

  • Consider scheduling an initial meeting with the school principal, class teacher or any other educational support person (e.g. school counsellor).  
  • Schedule regular catchups to discuss the progress of the student’s learning as well as their social and emotional wellbeing.  
  • Discussing flexible school attendance and activities, can assist a student to slowly get back into school life rather than trying to return to school full time right away.  
  • Getting medical documentation that supports a gradual return to school can promote a smoother transition. 
  • Parents and the school should try to talk regularly about any changes that may be needed to a child’s schoolwork and grading, or any recommendations from allied health professionals such as Occupational Therapists, Physiotherapists or Speech Therapists.   
  • Returning to school can stir emotions and possible anxiousness. Speaking to the school counsellor as well as linking in with a Redkite Social Worker can provide reassurance and understanding that things will probably feel different for a little while but regular check-ins and listening to how the student is feeling can provide a timeline how the student is adapting back to school and builds on their resilience.
  • If you are sharing the news your child has a cancer diagnosis decide how you would like the information to be shared with teachers and the rest of the community. Be aware that some people may respond differently to this news. This can stir emotions like worry, fear or anxiousness. Ensure the community is informed and equipped to handle unexpected emotions.  
  • Think about timeframes and how long the student may be away from school due to treatment or follow up appointments. Speak to your doctor or treating specialist if they can provide a letter explaining any prolonged absence or sporadic absences.  
  • Scheduling regular meetings or check-ins with the teacher or school counsellor to support the student who may feel anxious about falling behind.  
  • Discussions around expectations and how you can maintain some form of online or distance learning whilst your child is receiving treatment. Talking to your teacher about an Individual Education Plan or Individual Learning Plan (IEP or ILP) may provide direction and support the student from falling behind. [1] 
  • Any school-aged inpatient can enrol in a school or educational program based in a hospital. These services support patients who may be absent from school for extended periods of time. The goal of the hospital schools is to provide continuity of education and assist with return to school when the student is ready. They can also contact the student’s current school to discuss their learning and any progress.  

When a student returns to school after dealing with cancer, both students and their families might feel an array of emotions and worries. Some families might feel anxious, wanting to shield and protect their child from stress as they navigate a “new” normal. Others might see it as a chance to slowly reintegrate into a routine with structure. These feelings are common and can be an opportunity to strengthen the student’s resilience while creating a safe and supportive atmosphere. 

To find out more about our emotional and mental health support services, contact our support team

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  1. Cancer Council. (2018). Cancer-in-the-School-Community. Retrieved from PDF (www.cancercouncil.com.au). 

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