learning difficulties

Helping Kids With Learning Difficulties After Cancer Treatment

Today on Lionfighters, we have a guest post by Peggy Smith, BS, MS. Peggy is a certified teacher who works with patients at Children’s. She coordinates efforts with their school districts to ensure they receive educational services during treatment—and afterward.

As much as everyone wishes that everything could return to normal after a child’s cancer treatment ends, sometimes this simply isn’t the case. Depending on the type of cancer and kind of treatment, some pediatric cancer survivors are at risk for learning difficulties.

Fortunately, there are many ways to help kids succeed in school. Here’s how parents and schools can support kids who are struggling with learning difficulties after cancer treatment.

Q: What are some learning difficulties kids might face after cancer?

Peggy Smith, BS, MS: There’s really a wide variety of issues that kids might face. Not all kids have them, and among the ones who do, some struggle more than others.

With younger kids, I especially tend to see problems with memory, concentration, or attention span. They can also have a hard time finding the right words to express themselves and doing more than one thing at once. Problems with eye-hand coordination are also not unusual.

Other kids can struggle with processing thoughts or getting their thoughts organized. They might also have troubles with spatial relations: “above and below,” “in back of,” or “in front of.” Sometimes, things that were not difficult prior to treatment can be challenging for kids.

There can be behavioral issues, too. For instance, we often see anxiety and depression in kids who have had cancer. There might also be delays in social, emotional, or behavioral development.

Q: How can parents help their children if they are struggling with learning difficulties?

Peggy: Keep in mind that it’s important for kids to return to school as soon as possible after they’re cleared by the medical team.

That can be hard, especially if they tire more easily. If that’s the case, parents can talk to the school about starting with shorter days and other strategies to transition their child back into the academic environment.

School is not just a place of learning. That’s where their friends are, so there are social and fun elements, too. Kids need to stay connected to their peers, so they don’t feel so isolated.

Another important thing parents can do is be informed ahead of time about the possible struggles that their kids might have. That way, they can be on the lookout for signs of learning difficulties.

Watching for those signs can help start the process of early intervention, which will have the most benefit for the child in the long run.

learning difficulties

Q: How can schools help kids overcome these learning difficulties?

Peggy: Schools can help in a number of ways, and that’s why it’s really important for parents to be in communication with faculty and staff as early as possible. Planning can start after diagnosis. It doesn’t need to and shouldn’t wait until treatment is over.

Parents should communicate not just with the child’s teacher, but also with a guidance counselor and a school nurse. This is because they need to take into account all areas that can be affected—the medical, academic, social, and emotional components.

Once they’re in communication with the faculty and staff, parents can talk about what school will look like for their child while undergoing treatment.

If they’re in the hospital, maybe it’s a matter of receiving homebound instruction, or maybe the hospital teacher can assist her. Some classroom teachers even come up to the hospital themselves, and some parents choose to hire private tutors.

So, it’s important to come up with what that plan will look like when a child is undergoing treatment, and also when they’re finished with treatment.

When a child goes back to school, the parents and school should continue to communicate with each other as they decide what the transition plan will look like, adjusting it as they go to best meet the child’s educational needs. If they’re aware of the struggles that the child is having, they can put into effect a plan.

Parents can ask for a 504 Plan to be written up. Some kids will qualify for an individualized education program (IEP), but if they don’t, they always qualify for a 504 Plan.

A 504 Plan will list the specific learning difficulties, set individualized goals, and provide support services to help address them. It will also specify any requests for speech services, or occupational or physical therapy.

A 504 Plan/IEP will spell out any modifications or accommodations the child will receive in the classroom like preferential seating, special privileges, or extra time to complete assignments.

Extra help like this can get your child well on his way to a great learning experience—and a great future.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Anisa Hoie
I've been a nurse for nearly 32 years, mostly taking care of kids with cancer. My job is to give the kids and their families a personal touch while they go through treatment.

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