Teachers play important roles in our lives: shaping our understanding of the world, helping us learn new things, and inspiring us every day. This is a big job, and it can become even more challenging when the teacher is also trying to accommodate the needs of a child with a chronic illness or disease. Not every student learns at the same pace or in the same way, and those with chronic illnesses have additional hurdles to face.
“We’re realizing more and more that we’re not meeting the needs of all the students in the classroom,” says Nicole Eredics, educator and author of Inclusion in Action. “There are groups that are being left behind.” Students with a chronic illness require additional support in order to function at their maximum potential. So how can teachers make sure everyone in the class is equipped with the same opportunities to succeed?
Recognize when a student is struggling. Watch for any disconnect between you and your students, and look for cues that something may be a little off. “If the child isn’t able to stay focused on a lesson, isn’t able to follow direction, or has poor emotional regulation for example, is quick to get upset or excited it could be a sign that something is wrong,” says Eredics. Other signs to look for include a student not hearing what the teacher is saying, fixating on one thing, having trouble reading, or being more adept at verbal rather than written expression.
Seek guidance. “The first thing the teacher needs to do is seek guidance and support if a student is having trouble in the classroom because of a chronic illness or condition,” says Eredics. Talk to the family about their needs and the needs of their child; then connect with the learning support staff at the school. Once the student has been evaluated, a plan such as an individualized educational plan (IEP) or 504—is created and specialized learning strategies can be put in place. With a plan, teachers and learning support staff have a road map for working with students who have specific learning needs.
Look for triggers. Various physical aspects of the classroom environment, such as the lighting or temperature, may cause students with a chronic condition to react negatively. But most of these issues are easy to fix. “If a child has attention problems, for example, don’t seat him or her near a window,” suggests Eredics. Working in a group, using a computer, or completing handwriting tests could also be triggers, so it’s important to make the necessary accommodations or modifications. “Once you identify what a student’s triggers are, there are many ways to support the child and facilitate learning,” Eredics adds.
Make exceptions…but also treat these students like any other student. Students struggling with a chronic condition or illness may need extra time on a test or might need to leave the classroom frequently. But, as contradictory as it may sound, the impulse to give students with chronic conditions special treatment may do more harm than good. That’s because they just want to be accepted by their peers. Make sure the student doesn’t feel alienated, while also tending to their needs. Being a role model is the first step, Eredics says: “The teacher needs to lead by example and create a climate of acceptance.”
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