Moving Up to Middle School and Beyond
Help your child with juvenile arthritis make the change to a new school.
By Mary Anne Dunkin
From the day you anxiously watched your child step on a bus bound for kindergarten, you’ve had to learn to entrust her care to a school and teachers who may see her more than you. While your child probably adjusted quickly, a change – be it from elementary to middle school or middle to high school – can cause anxious feelings to resurface for both of you.
The change can involve tougher classes, a longer school day, more homework. For a child with arthritis, challenges may also include heavier text books, crowded hallways and a whole school full of teachers who may know little about arthritis and how it affects kids.
The following are some of the most common issues that kids face during school transitions, as well as some good advice on how to help your child survive – and thrive.
Interacting with Multiple Teachers
In elementary school, your child may have spent the entire day in one class with one teacher, who grew to know him and his strengths and limitations well. Now, he may have a different teacher every hour, and may get new classes with different teachers every quarter or semester. Teachers, who often see hundreds of kids a day, may mistake your child’s arthritis-related fatigue for laziness or wonder why he can’t take notes or complete writing assignments as quickly as his peers.
How you can help: Identify each of your child’s teachers, by speaking with the administration or visiting the school’s website if necessary, advises Dea Jones, school intervention coordinator for the division of pediatric physical medicine and rehabilitation at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Then try to meet with each teacher briefly or at least write a letter to each one explaining that your child has arthritis, how that may affect him at school and any special needs he might have in the classroom.
Teri Halsey of Wichita Falls, Texas, found such meetings helpful, and each year took her daughter, Rebecca, now a college freshman, with her.
“I would tell them what she had and that she’s not a complainer. I said if she felt bad I would appreciate their letting her go to the school nurse without any questions,” says Teri. “Sure enough, after they got to know her it wasn’t a problem at all.”
If you feel it’s necessary, establish a schedule to e-mail your child’s teachers for feedback on how she’s doing. If your child has a 504 Accommodation Plan, send along a copy of that to each teacher for your child’s file, advises Jones. Usually, one copy is kept in the school office and it is up to the teacher to look it up. Putting a copy at his or her fingertips can help make sure your child’s needs are met, she says.
Handling Homework Demands
As your child gets older, homework assignments often increase. Completing them can be difficult if arthritis affects your child’s hands, making it difficult to write, or if fatigue takes its toll with long or multiple assignments.
How you can help: Go through your school’s administration to see if homework demands can be lessened. If your child is in public school, this can be a part of her 504 plan.
“The school could make accommodations where, for example, the child does five math problems per night instead of 30,” says Jones.
If the administration is unreceptive to your requests or if your child is having trouble with one particular class, she might have more luck going to the individual teacher, says Gini Falconer, a San Francisco mother whose daughter, Sarah, was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when she was 18 months old.
“Some teachers are more flexible than others and they make their own agreement with the student if there is mutual respect and the child is doing well,” she says.
Sarah’s teachers required that she complete all homework assignments, but allowed her to have extra time to complete them if she notified the teacher beforehand.
If you can’t get homework reduced, help your child prioritize homework assignments. Make sure she studies for tests and completes papers, but if her homework seems more like busywork, let it slide, if necessary. “Sarah has accepted this,” says Gini. “If things start to back up toward the end of the trimester, she will make her own decision on whether it is worth the effort to do every assignment.”
Tests can be intense and involve a lot of writing. If your child’s hands are affected, it may be difficult for him to write all of the answers – even if he knows them well – in the time allotted. Fatigue and pain can make it difficult to concentrate.
What you can do: Ask your child’s teacher or the school administration (in a 504 plan) if tests can be taken on a computer or if the child can be given extra time to complete the test. Make sure your child gets to bed early the night before a big test and takes his medications. But be careful to avoid starting a new medication right before a big test, says Gini. Shortly before her SATs, Sarah, now a high school senior, started to become forgetful, disorganized and had trouble functioning in class, says Gini. They later learned that her forgetfulness had been a side effect of methotrexate.
For each class your child takes, there’s probably at least one, usually heavy, textbook. Hauling those books to and from school every day can be a pain — literally.
What you can do: Request more books. As part of her son Ian’s 504 plan, Susan Mead of Lockport, Ill., was able to get an extra set of set of books for him to keep at home, so the 13-year-old wouldn’t have to lug a heavy backpack on the school bus. If getting to the locker to retrieve books or carrying them from class to class presents a problem, ask your child’s teachers about keeping a textbook in the classroom for him.