Making the transition from hospital back to school can be an important step in your child’s recovery and rehabilitation. A key ingredient for this process to go well is good communication.
As a parent or caregiver, you are in a unique position to help coordinate information-sharing between the hospital and school, as well as advocate for your child. This may seem like a big challenge; it may even feel overwhelming. Your child’s health care and school teams will help you and work with you. We’ve compiled information and suggestions from parents, teachers, school nurses and other organizations to help you.
Start by finding and identifying the key members of your child’s medical care team and school care team.
Your Medical Team:
- While your child is in the hospital, ask who will be involved in helping plan their return to school. This may include a nurse, social worker, doctor, hospital teacher, psychologist, occupational, speech or physical therapist and others.
- Know that members of your child’s medical care team may change between hospital and outpatient care.
- You may need to sign release forms to share medical information with school staff.
- Find out who can provide letters and medical information when needed. Remember to include your child’s primary care provider. Ask about the best way to reach these team members when you need information.
- Consider asking for a letter from your child’s doctor to cover extended absences or multiple appointments. This will help the attendance office and registrar at your child’s school.
Your School Team:
- To find the key contact at your child’s school, try starting with the school nurse, school counselor, principal or vice-principal.
- Connect with your school’s nurse early on in the process as you can. The school nurse plays a key role in coordinating your child’s care and setting up support when they return. Connecting with them early on may help prevent your child from missing more school due to delays in organizing the services they will need.
- Involve your child’s teacher(s) in the team, but know that they may need support from other school staff and administrators.
- If your child needs medications at school, ask the school nurse for a medication authorization form. You will need to provide medication to the school in a labeled prescription bottle.
Before your child is discharged, ask to meet with your medical care team to plan for your child’s return to school. Then ask to meet with key school personnel so you can share this information.
Here is a list of possible topics you might want to cover (also available as a printable PDF checklist)
A letter from the doctor that explains your child’s current needs while at school is very helpful to school staff. It is important to have a way to inform everyone who works with your child throughout the day, including substitute teachers.
- Health care needs at school
Are there specific care tasks that need to be done by school staff while your child is at school? What medicines will your child need, and how should they are given? What are expected side effects? Who should be contacted if there are problems at school? Will your child need occupational, physical or speech therapy?
- Are there any changes in your child’s ability to think and concentrate?
This includes their ability to learn new things, their memory and ability to plan and finish projects. Has your child had any change in their ability to communicate?
- Does your child have mobility issues?
Will your child need help moving about the school? Is involvement in PE class appropriate? Will your child need help during emergency drills?
- Does your child have hearing or vision needs?
Will this impact where they should sit in the classroom?
- Are there emotional or behavior changes to be aware of?
Is your child worried about going back to school? Will they need help with school work or social situations? Be alert to changes in your child’s or teen’s emotional state after a prolonged absence. This may affect their desire to go back to school.
- What are your child’s physical abilities, such as strength, balance and endurance?
Is there a need to shorten or modify the school day? Does your child need rest periods during the day? If so, is there a safe, supervised place for rest? Will the bus schedule need to be adjusted? Will your child need more frequent bathroom breaks, permission to carry a water bottle, or need frequent snacks?
- Will your child need a 504 accommodation plan or special education support with an Individualized Education Program (IEP)?
Talk with your school team about which plan will meet your child’s needs. Visit the Special Education, IEP and the 504 Plan section for information on these plans.
- Talking about their condition
What does your child understand about their condition? What would your child like for peers and teachers to know?
- On-going treatment
Are there follow-up appointments that may impact attendance?
- In an emergency, what information will school staff need?
Inform school staff which symptoms are concerning, which are true emergencies and what to do for each. It may help to create a health history form to travel with your child. The In Case of Emergency (Spanish version) and Getting to Know Me (Spanish version) forms may be helpful.
Suggestions from parents who have experience with their child returning to school after being in the hospital or a time of serious illness.
- Connect with other parents! Talk to your medical team to see if you can connect with families who have gone through a similar situation. Visit the Support and Connection page for more information.
- If you have other children at the same school, talk with them about their needs and concerns.
- Encourage school staff to remember that your child’s illness does not define their siblings. Siblings will need support as individuals with their own needs and interests.
- Use a shared online or printed calendar to share medical and therapy appointments with school and other caregivers.
- Some parents find the Getting to Know Me form helpful for sharing information.
- It is important for middle and high school students or their parents to stay in touch with teachers by email during their illness and recovery so that they can negotiate a change in work load, get assignments modified or excused, and communicate if they are feeling overwhelmed.
- Some families have kept teachers updated on the day-to-day life of their child during school absences. If you maintain a blog, consider sharing this information with school staff.
- Think about making emergency and or comfort kits your child can keep at school (e.g., food, medication, and comfort care items).
- Consider creating a group email or text template to facilitate contacting everyone on your child’s school and medical team.
Ideas to Help Your Younger Child
- Ask your child if they want to take part and or share updates with their class while they are in the hospital or at home. This can be done through blogs, websites like Caring Bridge, Facebook, email, letters or Skype communication. This should always be done with parent and or teacher support.
- Consider using role play to help your child prepare. Talk about how they might answer questions about their illness, and why they were in the hospital.
- Talk with your child and their teachers to plan how they will indicate if they need a break or are having a problem during class.
- If an aide will be assigned, ask your child if they would like to meet with the aide before the first day back to school.
- Consider visiting the school with your child after school hours so that your child can see where they will sit, where they might take breaks and where to go for their medication etc.
Ideas for Older Children and Teens
- If your child uses a social networking site, work with them to choose photos and brief updates to keep their classmates in the loop. If your child will have a cast or visible medical equipment, sharing photos in advance of seeing friends may help reduce discomfort. This should be done with parent and teacher support.
- Ask if your child would like visits from classmates while recovering at home.
- Parents have shared that helping their child learn to advocate for themselves with school staff and friends is important. Depending on your child’s developmental level, needs and abilities, consider talking with them about how to speak up and ask for help. Talk about who they should approach, and practice wording that will effectively communicate their needs or concerns.
Ideas for Children Who Use Alternative Communication
- If you child is nonverbal, consider compiling a mini-photo album to share photos, x-ray images or interesting facts to help share their hospital experience.
- If your child uses an alternative communication device, think about adding content that allows them to answer questions about their time away from school.
- If your child uses a picture exchange communication system (PECS), print out some symbols that relate to the hospital stay so that your child can easily use them.
References used to create this material include the Medical Home Portal, Department of Pediatrics, University of Utah and Brian Ross, MEd. Seattle Children’s Hospital