School Daze: Students & Chronic Illness

Recently, a friend shared photos of her high school reunion online. It was fun to look at those images, because I had attended this school for a few years. Once upon a time, these individuals were also my classmates. Time has a way of changing us. Age becomes the great equalizer, in life. And many of the things that we worried about, back in school, seem remarkably trivial. Perhaps, wisdom has finally taken control? Or, maybe, we’re just lacking the energy of our youth? Nowadays, most of us have Chronic illnesses to manage and discuss. It’s the new normal. But, 40+ years ago, it was a very different story. My diagnosis was an oddity that added difficulty to school and relationships. If your student is living with one, they know exactly what I mean.

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I was diagnosed with a Chronic illness, in 8th grade. In the blink of an eye, my life was drastically altered. I was hospitalized for six weeks, in one semester. My grades tumbled, across the board. No subject was spared. Perfectionist that I was (and still am to some extent), I went into full-panic mode. I was the student who tutored others. I had even tutored a couple of students who were a year ahead of me. Excellent grades had always been achieved, with modest effort. I had never been the student who had to work hard, or academically struggled. My Science teacher, crusty old gal that she was, refused to believe that I was even sick. Letters from my physicians had absolutely no influence on her. It made for an awkward classroom experience, to say the least. My other teachers, praise God, were understanding. They even brought school-work to my hospital-bed. But my life, like a line of falling dominoes, continued to collapse. My friendships became strained. Some disintegrated. Others totally disappeared. Then came the grand finale … the Headmaster announced that I had missed a few days over the limit that the state allowed (in a school-year). And I was held back, despite my passing grades and valiant effort. To say that it was heartbreaking would be an understatement. It was the most brutal thing that I had ever endured. Frustrating. Embarrassing. Even now, at 58, I really cannot describe how broken that year left me. Thankfully, I had a great support system — my family. With them, I was able to glean a valuable life-lesson from this unbearable time … perseverance!

Education has improved, in many areas. In others, it remains a mess. I have no desire to debate over-crowded classrooms, curriculum, weapons, etc., though all are worthy subjects. My focus, here, is on each and every student who lives with a Chronic illness.

We cannot control how society will react to the chronically ill, even if the patient is a child. We cannot force relationships to happen, or survive. And there are no guarantees that the adults involved won’t somehow disappoint us. We must realize that human nature plays a role. And perceptions can be skewed, by many things. Despite the law, diligent studying and the best of parenting, the odds are still that your student’s health issue will one day be an academic and/or social issue. So, be prepared.

Once a child is of school-age, he or she begins a journey through the academic and social pressures of growing-up. Parents are the navigators, for this journey — helping their child to avoid the hazards without becoming too overprotective or overbearing. When a child has a Chronic illness, there is an added degree of difficulty. Their needs/illness effects several, i.e. parents, siblings, teachers, etc. Sometimes, it is met with cooperation. And at other times, it’s a struggle. On the tough days, remember that you aren’t alone. Your child didn’t ask for a long-term medical condition. Nor did you ever want it, for them. Yet, here you are. And there are millions of families who can relate to what you are going through. They are going through it, too. 

Students with Chronic illness often feel left out, embarrassed, frustrated. They want to fit in and be normal. Yet, their health is anything but that. Less than 20% of all students live with a Chronic illness. So, prepare them. Friends, classmates or teammates may ask questions. It’s no big deal. Usually, a brief response will suffice. And, if an emergency should ever arise, it can be life-saving to have individuals who are in the know.

Some students may have academic difficulties, when fatigue and other symptoms plague their ability to study or attend class. Others do not. Some may resort to trying risky behaviors, i.e. skipping medication, underage drinking, binge drinking, smoking, drug abuse, unprotected sex, reckless driving, etc. But many learn to respect their medical condition and its needs, early on. They have no desire to take unnecessary risks. Unfortunately, when someone is different, they can be the target of physical and/or verbal bullying. This includes students who are living with a Chronic illness. If your child is experiencing peer victimization, it hurts. So, it is important to address the issue promptly. Stress has the nasty ability to worsen any chronic condition.

If you can foster a team atmosphere at home and at school, it will help tremendously. A good support system, no matter the patient’s age, is priceless. Think of this as a lesson that your student can utilize, throughout their life. It’s an inclusive approach that makes them feel less overwhelmed. Talk candidly with your child about ways that they can manage their disease and enjoy life to the fullest. Build their confidence. Talk about their goals and dreams, i.e. team sports, class trips, college. Discuss ways to attain these things. Many accomplished individuals, from U.S. presidents to celebrities and pro athletes, live with Chronic illness. It helps any student to have a role model that they can identify with. Last but not least, try to avoid mourning what you think (or know) your child cannot do. Although it may be a natural reaction for parents, it can leave your child feeling as though they have disappointed you. Instead, celebrate and encourage what they CAN do. We all have gifts. The key is discovering and utilizing them! 

 

Reference Links:

http://www.disabilityrights.org/appendix.htm

http://www.med.umich.edu/yourchild/topics/chronic.htm

http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/chronic-illness-child.aspx

http://www.bourgase.com/teaching/special-education/coaching-chronic-illness/

https://academic.oup.com/jpepsy/article/42/3/245/2418166

http://spectrum.diabetesjournals.org/content/30/1/3

https://www.webmd.com/balance/managing-chronic-disease-at-college#1

https://consumer.healthday.com/general-health-information-16/suicide-health-news-646/chronic-illness-can-plunge-young-adults-into-despair-725726.html

*Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

 

 

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