Tips on teaching students with chronic illnesses

Tips on teaching students with chronic illnesses
Noah Rue October 6, 2020

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Did you know that up to 40% of the population in the United States, including children, has one or more chronic conditions? More than 75% of healthcare costs are related to chronic illnesses and 8% of children from ages 5 to 17 have life-affecting limits due to chronic conditions. These facts mean something important for teachers: in every classroom, it’s likely you have at least one student with a chronic illness.

As with many areas of teaching, empathy is the key to understanding what students with chronic illnesses need and giving them the agency to decide and express those needs themselves. Because of this, it’s important to remember that you cannot always treat children with chronic conditions the same as you might their peers, especially in times where remote learning is so prevalent during COVID-19.

Empathize by Understanding Chronic and Invisible Illnesses

Some chronically ill students experience invisible illnesses, which are illnesses that are not necessarily evident or obvious. Students with invisible illnesses might not use mobility aids such as wheelchairs, and invisible ailments include issues that can affect students physically and/or mentally.

In addition to mental health issues, chronic illnesses with visible and invisible elements may include:

  • Diabetes, Types I and II (common)
  • Asthma (very common)
  • Allergies (very common)
  • Skin conditions
  • Cancer
  • AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, and other immune conditions
  • Epilepsy
  • Sickle cell anemia
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Spina bifida
  • Congenital heart issues

Such as with allergies, various conditions can range from minimal (common pollen allergy) to life-threatening (food allergy requiring EpiPen).

When students have chronic illnesses, regardless of the level of visibility of the illness or their openness about them, they may have mental health concerns as well. Students with invisible illnesses often face questions and criticisms from others. Since illness isn’t always visible, it can present challenges for the student.

For example, it may not be obvious when a student with a chronic illness is in pain or has a specific need. If the student discusses their illness with you, reinforce that they are always welcome to express their needs and challenges to you, especially if they distract the student from their academic duties.

Like so many elements of education, whether a student wishes to disclose their chronic illness to their classmates is up to the student. If they tell you they’d like to share it with the class and talk about it, research their condition, be ready to support, and, most importantly, ask the student how they would prefer you to support them.

Depending on the age group, other students may want to know if they can “catch” the illness from the student, or they may have significant, personal questions that embarrass the student.

Learn About Challenges Students with Chronic Illnesses Commonly Face

Living with a chronic illness can be mentally taxing for students. Chronic illnesses can complicate their relationships with peers and family members, as well as affect their schoolwork, hobbies, sports, and other extracurricular activities. Additionally, medical professionals don’t always believe students with chronic illnesses regarding their pain levels and sometimes neglect a chronic illness patient’s mental health, particularly if the child is able to be physically active.

Some chronic illnesses progress, go into remission, or change over time, and it’s difficult for some students (and their friends) to understand why they might be able to complete an activity one day, but not the next.

Create a Needs Assessment

If a student’s needs aren’t clear, you may wish to work with the student, their counselors, and their parents to create and execute a needs assessment. A needs assessment can determine how to best support the education of a child with a chronic illness.

Make sure to chronicle the results, assess again each semester, and place the information in the student’s records to ensure the next teacher they work with has the necessary information and tools to measure needs in the future.

How to Accommodate Chronically Ill Students

To assist a student with chronic illness, you need to provide the student with self-empowerment and choices. Instead of prescribing solutions, work collaboratively with your student to find something that works best for everyone.

Here are some examples:

  • GER and GERD are acid reflux diseases that can occur in children (and adults). GER, or gastroesophageal reflux, is what happens when you get heartburn due to the contents of the stomach moving back up through the esophagus. Students with severe GERD find that it may affect their productivity and may need some support with focusing and homework. They may also need to head to the nurse’s office for medication to manage this condition and they may have dietary restrictions.
  • Skin conditions such as rosacea, discoloration, and severe acne are particularly difficult for many students to cope with. Since these conditions are visible, other students may make fun of them for it or for the extra precautions they may need to take when outdoors (during recess or PE, or on field trips) or exposed to sunlight. This can cause students to feel isolated. To empower students with skin conditions, monitor their peers’ behavior, communicate or check-in, and follow their parents’ instructions regarding sunscreen on field trip days. Additionally, students with albinism often have visual impairments and may need to sit closer to the instructional area than other students.
  • Diabetes is a common condition for students, occurring in three types. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition that often presents initially in children. A type 1 diabetic’s antibodies attack their pancreas. As a result, they need insulin which is usually delivered via injections, pens, or pumps. Type 2 diabetes (affecting approximately 200,000 children and young adults under the age of 20) often occurs in teenagers and adults who are 20% over healthy body weight. Gestational diabetes happens in up to 10% of pregnancies and may be a concern if you have a pregnant student. In all cases, diabetic students typically require a specific diet, blood sugar tests, and insulin. When students can administer insulin themselves, it’s imperative that they have access to their medication and that they are not delaying due to fear of ridicule from other students. Students with diabetes should not be delayed from eating, even if it means snacking in class, and they may also need unrestricted bathroom access and access to water during high blood sugar instances.
  • Build productive and affirming habits amongst all students, particularly those learning in a remote environment. Teaching these students about good remote-working habits will help them to feel like they’re being acknowledged and provided tools they need to continue to be successful.

Empathy is crucial regardless of the chronic conditions that students exhibit. Their needs may change along with their ability to adequately communicate them but being open to discussion and careful attention can help a student feel comfortable speaking to you when necessary.

Noah Rue is a journalist and content writer, fascinated with the intersection between global health, personal wellness, and modern technology. When he isn’t searching out his next great writing opportunity, Noah likes to shut off his devices and head to the mountains to disconnect.

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