As cancer becomes more common, one group of people are becoming extremely disturbed. Some children get cancer, but many more are affected by the cancers affecting their families – their fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters – and also their friends and classmates. How can we help these children cope with these disturbing and upsetting experiences. Here is one teacher’s experience with one child. I hope other teachers will add their experiences.
How to work with children who are affected by cancer – a teacher’s perspective
I have been teaching for six years and have supported one child whose mum was affected with cancer. Sophie was in Year 2 and aged 6 when she found out her mum had breast cancer.
In the early stages of the parent’s diagnosis, interaction between the school and parents was paramount. A formal letter was written to the head teacher explaining that Sophie’s mum had breast cancer and treatment was starting in the following week, this was then distributed amongst all staff who came into contact with Sophie. Sometimes, personal information is kept confidential but both the parents and school felt that if everyone was aware of what was happening; it prepared the adults if Sophie chose to talk to them about it.
Before her mum went into hospital, we arranged a parent meeting discuss what they had told Sophie and how they wanted her to be supported in school. They explained that they had informed Sophie that her mum was poorly and needed to go into hospital to get better. They said that she understood at a simple level that the medicine that the doctors gave her would indeed make her very poorly before she could get better. As a family, they joked about her first treatment and how they would inject dye that would turn mummy blue like a smurf. It seemed like Sophie had a strong, down to earth support system in place at home. In school, we wanted to adopt a similar approach founded on being open and honest with Sophie.
To all children experiencing difficulties or sudden changes at home, we offer pastoral support in the form of counselling. However, Lilly was not emotionally developed enough to express her feelings in words and was not forthcoming enough to speak to outside support.
In class, we had systems in place to give children to opportunity to talk through the use of a ‘worry box.’ They wrote their name in the box and received some 1:1 time to talk to the teacher or teaching assistant. To refresh the children about how to use the worry box, I led a circle time about how a change in their lives affects them. As a class they expressed that change can be exciting or an anxious time if you don’t know what is happening. We shared a few examples openly (Sophie chose to pass) and then discussed strategies to cope with anxieties: talking to an adult in school, sharing with friends, asking parents questions so that they know what is going to happen, having some thinking time in the quiet area. She appeared to listen to the advice but did not relate it to her circumstances.
A few days later however, Sophie put her name into the worry box to talk to me. Her main concern was how her mum’s hair was going to fall out (her mum had very long red hair), how she would look different and what it would grow back like. I thanked her for talking to me and explained that mummy would still be the same person, no matter what her hair was like; we then had fun discussing all the various possibilities for new hairstyles. Sophie was giggling by the end of our conversation. At the end of the day, I spoke to her mum about our conversation and on the weekend they took Sophie shopping to help choose hats for mummy to wear whilst her hair was gone. Each hat that Sophie chose was fun and she told the whole class for show and tell the following week. Some children asked why her mum was losing her hair and Sophie explained at her level that her mum was poorly and the medicine that would make her better caused her hair to fall out. The children accepted this.
As the weeks passed, changes in Sophie’s behaviour were noted. She had a heightened sense of justification and a very short temper. The rules had to be followed and she struggled when children deviated from them. On one occasion, she snatched a folder from a boy causing it to tear in half. I asked her to spend some time in the quiet area; in there I gave her some paper and a pencil and asked her to draw me a picture of something that would make her feel happy again. When I returned to her area, she had drawn a beautiful house with two people outside. I asked her to explain and she said that her grandparents were trying to buy a house in Gloucester so that they could be close to everyone and help out when mummy was poorly. She said that they were couldn’t find a new house and that she wished they could move from Scotland as quick as possible. Without promising, I reassured Lilly that they would try their best to find a house and would be close, as soon as they could. I also told her that it was something to look forward to and not worry about, that was for the grown-ups to sort out.
To help her deal with her sudden outburst, I explained that when she snatched and shouted her behaviour had changed and asked if she noticed how her body changed. She said that she felt mad and wanted to shout at the boy. I reinforced that he shouldn’t have picked up her folder but she could have dealt with it better. We discussed how it made the other person feel and reinforced what she could have done with other examples where she’d been aggressive with other children. I gave her some calming down strategies to use if she felt like that again: counting to 10, taking deep breaths, walking into the quiet area, taking her jumper off and getting a drink. Sophie used these calming strategies on a regular basis, sometimes she needed telling to cool off and sometimes she did it independently. After each time, we discussed how she felt at the time and how she dealt with it more positively. Sometimes it led to her sharing worries about her mum but not always.
Aside from the anger, Sophie often felt worried about things. To help her feel in control and able to talk at any time, we attached a worry doll to her coat that she took out at playtime and could talk to if any sudden worries popped into her head. In the classroom, we had a bag of stones that were introduced to coincide with the ‘cooling off’ period. Each stone had a meaning: health, anger, clear mind, good choices and strength. When in the quiet area, Sophie would choose a stone to rub and it often reflected how she was feeling. We always talked about which stone she had chosen and why. It was then communicated back to her parents who reinforced everything at home. The liaison between home and school gave Sophie consistency and constant support whenever she needed it.
Sophie is now in Year 3 and is doing extremely well; she is a very mature little girl. Her mum is currently in remission and also doing well.
For real cancer information read The Cancer Survivor’s Bible – www.fightingcancer.com