Staying connected before, during and after a school absence

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Missing school because of an illness is not easy for children or their parents. Without daily contact with classmates and teachers, it can be hard for a child to keep in touch and feel connected with school.

Key points

  • If you know your child is going to miss school due to an illness encourage them to strengthen bonds with friends and to prepare others for their absence.
  • During your child’s absence from school you can help them keep up with school work and encourage them to keep in touch with friends.
  • When your child is returning to school you can help them to reconnect with friends and any relationship problems they may face.

Missing school because of an illness is not easy for children or their parents. Without daily contact with classmates and teachers, it can be hard for a child to keep in touch and feel connected with school.

School absence because of an illness may also affect a child’s relationships with their peers. They may feel unsure or worried and, even when they return, may find it hard to “catch up” with friends and classmates, especially if their peers label them as a “sick” classmate.

Depending on your child’s illness, you may not have much time to prepare your child for their absence from school. Being aware of these tips and focusing on what your child can still do, despite their illness, will help you empower your child. In particular, you can support your child through this difficult time by helping them strengthen their friendships, stay connected to school and handle relationship problems if they occur.

Before a school absence

Encourage your child to strengthen bonds with friends

Research has shown that maintaining children’s friendships is more about doing good than avoiding the bad.

Encourage your child to:

  • spend time with friends
  • share their thoughts and feelings with friends they trust, whether about their favourite toys, their funniest memory or their feelings about being away from school
  • show their friends how much they appreciate them, for instance by writing a card, giving a homemade gift or giving a hug

Prepare others for your child’s absence from school

Your child may be anxious about leaving school or worried about what other people will think of their absence.

You can help your child learn how to talk to others about their illness. Take time first to explore your child’s comfort level and assess their language abilities. Then decide with your child if they are ready to tell classmates and/or teachers about their health. Each child has individual preferences and abilities.

If your child is comfortable and ready, they can:

  • explain their illness to their classmates briefly and in their own words
  • tell their classmates that they will be absent
  • plan with their friends how they will keep in touch during their absence
  • explain how some things might change when they return, such as their appearance, activity level or school routine

It can be helpful for your child to bring up these topics with their friends during and after their absence as well. These conversations can be a reminder and an opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings.

During a school absence

Just as it is important to support your child as they prepare for school absence, it is equally valuable to help them transition smoothly through their time away from school.

Help your child keep up with school work if they can

Helping your child stay connected to school can help them feel more in control over the changes they may face while away. Many hospitals already have partnerships with schools; this can be a great way to keep your child connected.

Communicate with your child’s teachers by:

  • explaining your child’s interest in and ability to keep up with schoolwork and receive assignments while they are absent
  • asking specific questions, such as:
    • how best and how often to communicate
    • what to do if your child has questions
    • what information might help your child complete any assignments
  • explaining that falling behind can be very stressful for your child
  • asking them if they can include your child in classroom activities through phone calls and online tools such as email, file sharing, white boarding, instant messaging, video chat, video conferencing or video recordings that your child can watch at their own pace
  • keeping them up to date about how your child is doing and what can be expected of them

Although it is important to keep up with school, remember that this may not be your child’s most important or realistic goal while they are ill. Check in with your child regularly about how they are doing and support them if they are having any difficulties.

Encourage your child to keep in touch with friends

While away from school, your child might feel isolated from their friends and classmates. You can help your child stay connected to current friends and make new friends from home or the hospital.

Help your child stay in touch with current friends by:

  • taking them to school for short visits or having friends and classmates visit them at home or the hospital when they are ready
  • encouraging your child to talk about their illness with their friends, and helping them decide who they should tell and what information they should share
  • asking your child’s teacher to encourage classmates to keep in touch through cards, visits and phone calls
  • using Skype, FaceTime or other video chat apps to include your child in events
  • encouraging them to text and use social media (under your supervision) to reach out to friends on their own schedule, especially if they feel sad or lonely

Help your child meet others in a similar situation by:

  • asking their medical team to introduce them to other children going through a similar illness and/or treatment
  • asking about any hospital-based or online support groups that they could join

Returning to school

Returning to school after an illness is an important step for your child. How well your child re-adjusts to school has a high impact on their overall wellbeing.

Some children with an illness might experience relationship problems when they return to school after an extended absence. For example, they may face challenges with “catching up” with friends or be labelled a “sick” classmate by their peers.

Help your child reconnect with friends

When your child returns to school, they may be unsure, worried or confused about how to reconnect with classmates.

Prepare your child and put them at ease by:

  • helping them brainstorm conversation starters (for example sports and TV shows) and practicing discussing the topics with them
  • encouraging them to join activities they enjoy to meet other children with shared interests
  • talking to them about the importance of friendly behaviours such as sharing, taking turns, providing support, apologizing and giving compliments
  • asking them about their feelings; children who can identify their own feelings are better able to understand other children’s points of view
  • letting them speak for themselves in everyday conversations with others

Help your child deal with relationship problems

After a long absence from school due to illness, your child may face issues such as teasing or bullying.

You can help your child by:

  • having them go to and from school with a close friend who knows about their illness and can offer them moral support
  • encouraging them to be open with you about any problems with friends and discussing possible solutions together
  • reminding them that hurtful comments may be unintentional and can be opportunities to explain their illness
  • encouraging them to use “I” statements when telling peers about how their behaviour makes them feel (for instance “I feel ________ when you ______”)
  • encouraging them to confidently say “Stop!” or ignore teasing from other children by walking away, even though this might be difficult
  • encouraging them to report teasing and any form of bullying behaviour to you, a teacher or another trusted adult

Take action when problems persist

Despite your child’s best efforts, they may continue to have problems with peers, worry about school and feel lonely.

Help your child deal with ongoing problems by:

  • encouraging them to speak to a trusted adult at school
  • advocating for them, if they are uncomfortable going to an adult, by calling the school to make sure a plan is in place
  • seeking help from a school counsellor, psychologist or other professional who can work with them to cope with these challenges
Last updated: May 8th 2019