Engagement is the key to children growing up with a strong sense of self, purpose, and belonging. Multiple channels need to converge to create diverse ways to address this complex issue. We have developed new approaches for children fighting cancer to cultivate meaning and purpose. Strategies include building space for collective, community healing and open discussion among families, peers, and the child them self to explore identity and trauma related to cancer.
- Through education, we engage patients and other students to become part of the solution. Patients are invited to tell their own stories and coached in mediums that would make that possible and accessible. But just as important are the relationship opportunities and normalcy that school provides. The ability to make friends is vital to a child’s healthy development. Children who have friends at school tend to have better attitudes about school and learning. And they are exposed to different cultures, differing attitudes toward life, and different points of view.
- A stuffed animal in placed in the classroom seat of the missing school peer to serve as a liaison between the patient and his/her classmates. The animal “carries messages from the patient,” “collects schoolwork on behalf of the patient,” and is a repository of questions the peers have about the absent patient. It serves as a seatholder – a reminder that the patient is still part of the class – a visual reminder of the student’s place in class.
- Medical puppets, Marc and Corky, are used to explain the child’s medical diagnosis to the class and engage classmates in learning about the diagnosis, treatment, and empathic responses.
- Students are assigned tasks with regard to the patient: report bullying; escort patient to lunch, class, etc.; be friendly.
- Students send get well messages to sick peers.
- Students help convey the class efforts to make missing peer feel included and important.
- Parents and patients are coached by therapists to become “experts” that function collaboratively with the class peers and school staff.
- Patients are coached by therapists to tell their stories to the class either by talking conversationally, reading from a written text they create, or another medium such as video or photos.
- Parents are taught how to advocate effectively on behalf of their child with professional support from POST.
- We create support systems for parents, educators, and caregivers, such as peer support groups and workshops that strengthen children’s emotional wellbeing and make school a safe space.
- Educators are informed about the difficulties patients face with regard to school and peer challenges so that they are alert for any issues and have a response plan.
- Neuropsychological evaluations will be made available to each child who needs one. Long-term side-effects often include cognitive deficits that impact school performance as much as frequent extended absences. Nine year old Jeff had kept pace with peers on simple math problems, but suddenly has trouble learning a new skill like multiplication. Quite simply, the disease, the treatment, or both cause damage to the brain's support cells, nerves and blood vessels. In turn, the damage slows the brain's ability to process or exchange information, making it difficult for the child to make the connections required for new developmental learning to occur. A neuropsychological evaluation report provides valuable information and serves as a guide for parents and school professionals creating a 504 plan or IEP.
All of these strategies come together to make school not only a safe space, but a designated place of transformation.