PCHA welcomes back Kyle Herma, School Intervention Specialist at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin School. Today, we re-share Kyle’s wealth of information on navigating a school’s system without a dedicated school liaison. Her complete resource list is included at the end of this post for easy reference.
Going to school for a child with complex medical condition can be scary for everyone! Families might worry about how their child will transition, schools might worry about how they will care for the child, and children might worry about what to say and how to act around friends they haven’t seen in a while (just to name a few examples). Each and every one of these concerns is valid and understandable. So, how do we swing that pendulum of emotion from feeling anxious to feeling prepared? I like to think of it as a 3-step process: proactive planning, clear communication, and seeking appropriate supports. The goal for this second part of my series is to give you a variety of resources, tips, tricks, and recommendations to successfully accomplish all three.
School is one of the best distractions a child can have! School provides a predictable structure with scheduled events, activities, responsibilities, and expectations. These are all things that will greatly benefit children who have experienced significant unpredictability in their lives. Yet, we know that return to routine can be overwhelming at times. The Center for Children with Special Needs and Seattle Children’s partnered up to create a great checklist for planning your child’s return to school. You can find that checklist here.
When I meet with families who are preparing for a new school year I always share two “Back-to-School” information sheets. Battling the Back-to-School Butterflies helps families plan for the big day by suggesting some tips for easing back into a school routine and Back-to-School To Do’s is a list of compiled questions to ask yourself while planning for an organized transition back to school. Thinking points, if you will!
Attendance is another major topic that comes up when I am working with families on school re-integration. We all know that children with chronic illness (regardless of the type) miss school more frequently than their healthy peers. Since the attendance patterns children form in school are closely linked to their ability to successfully maintain a job as an adult, I always stress attempting to make medical appointments before or after school, and if this is not possible, to work with your child’s teacher to find a time where the least core curriculum will be missed. Remember, missing a class period does not just mean you are missing the information covered in the textbook, it also means you are missing explanations, examples, peer questions, opportunities to practice and share reasoning’s, etc. – things that cannot be replicated when completing the make-up assignment at home. Proactive Planning for Necessary Absences is the info sheet that I often share with families as they create a plan that seeks to accommodate both a busy appointment schedule and optimum school attendance. It won’t always work out perfectly and that’s OK – your child’s health comes first! I just want it to be something that’s considered along the way.
Clear and Consistent Communication
Sharing information about your child’s medical history, current medical status, or potential medical challenges in the future can be really hard and often emotional. Schools understand that. They don’t want to know all of your child’s medical history to be nosey; they need to know it so they can ensure they are providing the best and safest care. It is within those uncomfortable conversations that trusting relationships are built – it’s OK to be vulnerable and it’s OK to not know all the answers. Use this opportunity to work together to find them. Ten Tips for Caregivers is an excellent starting point for quick tips on creating those meaningful partnerships with your child’s teacher/school.
Next, I encourage every family I work with to create some form of Getting to Know Me document to be given to teachers, administrators, coaches, substitutes … any staff who works with your child. Once again, I found one that I love while searching the Center for Children with Special Needs website (www.cshcn.org). This Getting To Know Me template highlights the child’s interests and strengths before getting into medical diagnosis and current health status. That’s how it should be – after all, were talking about a child!
In addition to informing all teachers and school staff, I also encouraging the sharing of basic information with the families of classroom peers. The purpose of sending out a class letter (much like one you would receive if a child in the classroom had a peanut allergy) is to make sure classmates are washing their hands regularly, cleaning their shared and personal spaces frequently, and either staying home or communicating when they are sick. The class letter is the most frequently requested of all the resources I share with patient families. As you’ll see from my sample letter, I encourage including vaccination information on the opposite side for any family that may be overdue for or on the fence about getting vaccinated. Please personalize it using your preferred wording and share it with your child’s teacher … it could mean far fewer germs spreading through the classroom each year.
Bullying is also a topic that comes up over and over again with the patients I see. Bullying is something I take very seriously and prioritize whenever possible, however often times when I investigate these concerns the findings are split. Sometimes true bullying is taking place and we need to put an intervention plan into action immediately. Other times (more often than not), we are finding that children’s with chronic illnesses who’ve experienced long hospital stays and constant one-on-one attention from adults, tend to have a hard time re-integrating into environments that follow expectations of sharing, turn-taking, and delayed gratification. In many of the cases I’ve reviewed, the intervention that we ultimately put into place, is re-learning appropriate group social skills and accepting that each day moments of success (where we get what we want) and disappointment (moments where we do not) and learning how to appropriately communicate the feelings associate with both. Parents Act Now is a great starting point for understanding what bullying is and how to begin a conversation with your child’s school to ensure that all students feel safe and respected at all times.
The Power of Effective Support Services
I urge families to stay aware of normal developmental guidelines and corresponding developmental milestones. I am a firm believer that all children develop differently and at their own pace, however I also know that neurodevelopmental differences due to medical diagnoses, repairs, and treatments can appear at many different times. There is no academic, social, or emotional delay that cannot be accommodated for, however, it first must be identified. I highly urge you to seek some sort of neurodevelopmental follow-up evaluation from your medical provider if you do begin noticing a developmental difference or delay. The National Association of School Psychologists published a great brief guide to understanding and identifying disabilities. You can find that here. Remember, the earlier you seek necessary support, the better the chances of a positive outcome.
When it comes to establishing support services in school, one thing that I get asked all of the time is, “Who’s responsibility is it?” It doesn’t matter the illness at hand, the child’s current status, or even the rest of the question. The answer is always, “It’s everybody’s responsibility.” I often use a guide for families, schools, and students that breaks down individual responsibilities nicely. You can find that info sheet here. Almost every patient we see has some sort of special education service in place, or qualifies for one. My families often come to me with several questions regarding what services are available for their child and how they go about getting some sort of help in place. Special education support accounts for 24% of my current school interventions – nearly a quarter of the families I work with. To make it easier, I’ve created explanations about the three major services that are offered in schools: a Response to Intervention (RtI) Plan, a 504 Plan, and anIndividualized Education Plan (IEP). Click on each link to learn more about what each program offers and the criteria to qualify for that service. Click here to see a useful graphic for deciding which service best fits your child’s needs. There is one main thing that every parent must know and be prepared to challenge: a school can never refuse or delay a parent’s request for a special education evaluation (“it’s too early/late in the school year” or “they won’t qualify for these services” should NEVER be accepted answers). Unfortunately, families often still run into problems requesting or receiving these services for a variety of reasons. Click here to read the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s guidelines for disagreeing with a school’s decision and the information for a full mediation and resolution process. Please note, these guidelines vary by state. Check with your state’s Department of Public Instruction for your most accurate information.
I couldn’t end without the mention of another one of the Herma Heart Center’s top school integration programs. Project ADAM (Automated Defibrillators in Adam’s Memory) is a national hospital-based community outreach program supporting implementation of written and practiced cardiac emergency response plans for sudden cardiac arrest in schools. My final piece of advice for all cardiac families – whether it’s returning for a new school year or school re-integration after an extended hospital stay- make sure your child’s school has both an up-to-date Automated External Defibrillator (AED) and an emergency cardiac response plan in place. You will find the Project ADAM Wisconsin Heart Safe Schools Checklist here. Take this checklist to your school’s nurse or administrator and request they complete and return it to Project ADAM if they haven’t already done so. Project ADAM will work with the school to make sure they have the necessary technology, appropriate emergency action plans, and a schedule of practices and drills to maintain optimum cardiac safety in school.
I hope you’ve found some useful information to set your child on a path to a successful school year. Below you will find one final recap of my shared resources and links. Remember, you are the expert on your child, but I urge you take advantage of those individuals, agencies, and programs there to support you!
Complete School Intervention Resource List
Kyle Herma is the School Intervention Specialist serving the Herma Heart Center at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. Kyle has been at Children’s since February 2015 conducting a formal pilot study on school intervention and the impact it has on a child’s overall medical outcome and quality of life. Prior to this position, Kyle was a teacher at Milwaukee College Prep’s 38th street campus. In both roles, Kyle has shown her dedication to serving children who are placed at-risk for school failure and ultimate mission to achieve equal access to quality education for all.