Support for Seriously Ill Students

Sometimes the greatest gift teachers can offer such students is the opportunity to feel normal.

July 2017, Volume 40, Issue 11

It is increasingly common for children with serious illness to attend school in regular classes. Advances in treatment and a trend toward brief hospitalizations mean that even children with life-limiting conditions can be active in school until very close to the time of their death.

It’s important to help peers understand what is happening to a seriously ill classmate. Check with the ill student’s parents or guardians, as well as the student, to see what information they would like shared. Focus on providing information about the illness and its treatment at present and in the near-term, not on preparing for their classmate’s possible early death.

Sometimes the greatest gift teachers can offer such students is the opportunity to feel normal. School and learning are the main work of children’s lives. The chance to attend school, actively learn, and contribute in class can offer a continued sense of purpose in life.

How to Make a Difference

Check in with the student to see if there is anything he or she wishes communicated to classmates about the illness and its treatment. Some students want to do this themselves. Others would like the teacher or a health provider to speak to the class. Still others don’t feel a need to discuss the process with the class.

Children and teens with potentially life-limiting conditions often have a precocious understanding of their illness and likely death. Unfortunately, some parents prefer to think their children are unaware of the seriousness of the situation. Children may protect their parents by entering into a pretense about the matter.

But coping with serious illness and possible early death is challenging for anyone. Children may find themselves emotionally isolated, unable to seek information or reassurance from their family. A trusted adult in the school setting—a teacher, school nurse, or counselor—can offer vital support in these situations. Referral to a school mental health professional may be appropriate.

Learn More

Professional self-care for educators supporting a seriously ill student is also important. Find more suggestions for supporting students and obtaining helpful support for yourself at the Coalition for Grieving Students at

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