Back-to-school is in full swing and with each new school year often comes new questions for many parents about their child’s health. For children with health conditions, understanding when and how to best communicate with teachers and school staff about a child’s medical needs, determining the proper amount of information to disclose, and identifying the right programs and services for students who need specially designed instruction or accommodation plans is important but can sometimes be puzzling.
Dr. Ashley Moss, a pediatric psychologist at Seattle Children’s, shares some key advice on how parents and caregivers can talk about their child’s health conditions at school.
Discussing health with teachers and staff
If a child has a health condition, how they are treated at school is important. Caregivers will need to work with their school to make sure their child’s health needs are being met and to give them the same opportunities to participate in school and other activities. Dr. Moss says open communication is critical to ensure the school creates a safe and supportive environment that promotes both learning and participation in activities like their peers. She notes that schools are required to keep a child’s health information confidential.
Preparing a written care plan
Dr. Moss says a family’s medical team is a key resource for learning what information is critical to share with a child’s school. Medical teams and chronic illness-related organizations often have helpful resources online with information to share with school personnel. She also advises parents and caregivers to ask their medical team for accommodation recommendations to share with their child’s school.
Additionally, one of the best ways to make sure students get the care they need is to put together a written care plan which outlines specific care students may need at school, according to Dr. Moss. Written care plans or doctor’s orders are used as the basis for a Section 504 Plan or an Individualized Education Program (IEP) plan that can include accommodations for children with special healthcare needs.
“Give consent to your medical team and your child’s school to communicate directly so everyone who cares for your child has information about their medical needs,” Dr. Moss explained. “Parents and caregivers typically need to sign a release, which gives permission to the school and medical team to share information. The school staff should know how to reach your child’s medical team, especially in the event of an emergency.”
Understanding IEPs and 504 Plans
Dr. Moss says there are important differences between an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and a 504 plan but notes that not all students living with disabilities require specialized instruction.
“An IEP is developed for children with disabilities who require specialized instruction to meet their educational needs,” she explained. “504 plans are used for students with disabilities who do not require specialized instruction but do require assurances that they will receive access to educational opportunities and services. IEPs and 504 plans should be reviewed, and if needed, updated on an annual basis or whenever there is any significant change to your child’s health condition or treatment. This ensures students are receiving the most effective accommodations to meet their health needs in the school setting.”
Dr. Moss says 504 plans can help fill in the gap for students with chronic health conditions and that the accommodations provided are designed to remove barriers to learning and set students up for performing at their best at school. She adds that students with medical conditions may require accommodations specific to their health needs, which can help decrease the impact of their medical condition on their academic functioning.
“The 504 plan follows children from elementary through secondary school,” Dr. Moss explained. “Reviewing and adjusting the 504 plan at the time of transition to a new school is especially important to ensure new school personnel are on the same page with families. Schools often have a 504 or IEP coordinator, so plan to talk to them about your child’s medical needs as soon as possible. You can also talk to your child’s school principal or other administrators at the school to start the evaluation process.”
She suggests that parents follow up with their child’s school to ensure they can provide input into the process of developing a plan.
Sharing information appropriately
Communicating information about children’s health needs is critical to ensure school staff are prepared to help keep your child safe and support their engagement in the classroom and other activities.
“Some parents and caregivers worry about sharing information about their child’s health, but the more school personnel know, the better prepared they will be to help their child while they are at school,” Dr. Moss added. “If school personnel don’t have information about your child’s health condition and their medical needs at school, they may make the wrong assumptions about your child’s behavior and academic performance.”
It’s also beneficial to provide a brief medical history including diagnosis(es), contact information for the child’s medical team, medicine or procedures that are required during the school day, and special dietary or transportation needs.
Dr. Moss also suggests having plans in place for missed class time for medical appointments, trips to the nurse’s office, and other emergency procedures. She advises that parents and caregivers consider thinking about any special precautions, signs or symptoms that the school should monitor for and how to respond to these situations.
Communication is key
“When students miss a lot of school because of their health condition, parents, caregivers and the school should try to decrease impact on schoolwork and social relationships,” Dr. Moss said. “Keep kids involved with peers, provide support for making new friends and try to maintain normalcy.”
She adds that responding to the needs of children with medical conditions requires a comprehensive, coordinated and systematic approach that is informed by the medical team.
“Students with chronic medical conditions can function at their maximum potential when their needs are met,” Dr. Moss explained. “An open line of communication about student’s healthcare needs can promote better attendance, improved engagement, fewer symptoms, fewer restrictions on participation in activities and fewer medical emergencies.”