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In an elementary school classroom, students are seated on the floor in a circle to create a cozy atmosphere that encourages sharing and talking openly. One of the students has important information to share with his classmates. With the help of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital staff, he explains why he has missed so much school and why he sometimes has to cover his nose and mouth with a mask.
Treatment for cancer and other catastrophic disease can last months or years and often makes it impossible for young patients to keep up with their local school curriculum. Teachers in the St. Jude School Program Presented by Target help patients continue their normal educational activities while away from their local schools. They are also part of the health care team that provides opportunities to continue normal educational activities through homebound or hospital-bound educational services. In addition, the team provides school re-entry services to ease the transition back to the community school.
“We talk about these things at a level that the students understand,” said Laurie Leigh, the school’s director. “When kids don’t know what’s going on, they try to fill in the blanks and make up their own answers. It is important for us to put things in the proper context and demystify cancer.”
Cancer is a big topic no matter the age, but for children returning to school after treatment, putting the experience into words can be especially difficult. Through the school’s reintegration process, patients are supported by teachers and Child Life specialists to make the move easier. On request, sometimes employees visit the schools to talk with classmates about diagnosis, treatment and its side effects, and answer questions.
Some common misconceptions that St. Jude employees hear from patients are that cancer is contagious or that a child did something to cause the disease.
“Younger children have a lot of magical thinking about cause and effect,” Leigh said. “It is sometimes hard for them to understand that cancer happens and that we don’t know why it occurs.”
Re-entry presentations are left to the discretion of patients and their parents. School and Child Life staffs work with families to decide what is covered in the talk, giving patients control over how much they want to share. Some children want to participate in the presentation, while others prefer to be absent from the classroom when St. Jude staff explains cancer and its treatment.
“This is the child’s reentry, and we want to be aware and honor that,” Leigh said. “The child is the one who has to be in that classroom and live that every day.”