How To Help Heart Kids Keep Up When They Have To Miss School

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When your child is sick and has to spend time in the hospital, missing school might be the last thing on your mind. That’s understandable—your goal is to get your kiddo healthy. 

However, it’s important not to let school slide onto the back burner for too long. According to Peggy Smith, MS, BS, certified teacher at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, schoolwork provides a sense of normalcy, and keeps your kid’s mind active. It’s also important for her social and emotional well-being—she gets to stay connected to her classmates and teacher.

Peggy explains how parents can help a kid keep up when he has to miss school, and how he can transition back to school when he leaves the hospital.

Q: To what extent should a child with a heart condition be expected to keep up with school?

Peggy Smith, MS, BS: It’s different for every child. Often, a child won’t be able to keep up with every single subject, so we try to always do at least the minimum required.

We make reading and math a priority, because you can incorporate almost any other subject into reading, and math is sequential and difficult to keep up if kids fall too far behind.

Q: What if school is too stressful?

Peggy: We never want school to be the source of anxiety, but we will reduce or modify assignments such as allowing a patient to dictate assignments. We explain why it’s important, and encourage patients to keep up with their work.

We also take into consideration the voice of the parents. They know their child better than anyone else. Some parents and kids are just too stressed, not feeling well enough, and have too many other things on their plate.

But we’ll find other ways to help them learn and keep up, especially when it comes to reading. We’ll offer books to read, or drop off lists of activities that are fun, but still involve reading.

Of course, the most important thing is to do whatever is necessary to help your child rest and get well. Her physical health and recovery come first.

Q: How does schooling work in the hospital?

Peggy: Education is totally personalized. I schedule one-on-one time with each patient, so we can work on his individual goals. I act as a liaison between the school and family to figure out what the child’s needs are, and what is the most important for him to work on.

I can arrange video calls to the teacher, give tests, proctor standardized tests—anything a child needs to stay up-to-date.

Q: So, how do you act as a liaison?

Peggy: Being a liaison is all about communication. That’s especially true for high school students. For them, I’m more of an advocate. I communicate with the school about dropping classes, reducing the workload, making educational accommodations, working with the special education department if the kid has an IEP or 504 Plan, etc.

Recently, I got to advocate for my first college student. She became ill mid-semester, and had to be out for the rest of the semester. That was difficult because the older you are, the harder it is to make everything up.

So, I worked with the instructors, and most were willing to say, “Okay, you just need to turn in these three things,” or, “Just take this one exam.”

No matter how old a child is, I always advocate for not penalizing a student who is medically excused.

Q: Do kids ever use the hospital as an excuse not to do work?

Peggy: We definitely see some kids who think of being in the hospital as a free pass. Motivating them is all about striking a balance between academics and rewards. That’s not too hard to do—it could be as simple as going to the playroom.

For elementary school kids, in particular, we’ve long since moved past textbooks and worksheets. We make learning fun, by playing games, using electronics, or using manipulatives (objects that help teach concepts, like blocks).  

Q: Are there unique challenges for kids of different ages?

Peggy: Absolutely. I’ve seen many high school students who are very worried about not being in school. They’re straight-A’s, competitive, smart kids who love to learn, and don’t want to drop anything.

Q: What do you say to patients who are feeling that way?

Peggy: I always start by affirming their dedication to their studies. Then, we work together with parents and school to come up with a plan for moving forward. Sometimes, it is a matter of kids feeling like it’s one thing they can still control in their life when medically their life is unpredictable.

I say things like, “I know you really wanted to take chemistry this semester, but you can take it next year. You won’t lose anything by dropping it right now.” It’s important to encourage them to shuffle their priorities, and make their health number one.

Q: When a child is heading home from a hospital stay, what is your role in setting up homebound education?

Peggy: Having been in communication with school from the beginning, this is usually just an update. I try to always make schools aware of the need for homebound instruction as soon as I see a patient and family. Most districts have someone who is in charge of the homebound process, and it varies from district to district.

Sometimes, this can take a little while—I’ve seen it take 2 to 3 weeks for the school to be able to set up a meeting with a tutor. I try to get the ball rolling as soon as possible, preferably while the child is still in the hospital. It’s good for families to have a plan set in place after discharge—it’s one less thing to worry about.    

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Sean Akers

Hi, I’m Dr. Sean Akers, and I’m a Licensed Clinical Pediatric Psychologist at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha. I serve as the primary psychologist for the heart transplant team as well as the coordinator of the Consult Liaison Service. My job is to provide heart kids and their families with support throughout their journey.

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