Catching up at school after a long absence

Children in school cafeteria
From making up missed work to fitting back in with friends, how can children reintegrate at school after weeks away?
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Every parent secretly dreads their child being too poorly for school and the inconvenience it can cause, but for over a quarter of a million UK families, sick days are a recurrent issue.

Thousands of children live with health issues that involve long periods of absence from school, ranging from mental health conditions to physical illnesses like epilepsy and leukaemia. There are also many others who have missed long stretches of school as a result of behavioural issues, special educational needs (SEN) or their family circumstances: for example, those who have moved from an unstable home environment into foster care.

At some stage, these children will face the unenviable task of going back to school and reintegrating into their former class and its usual daily routines. Catching up with work and friendships can often be difficult, but a good school will do all it can to ease your child’s passage back into school life.

Returning to school: catching up with work

When your child is ready to return to school, the thought of catching up on weeks of missed work can be daunting. But, says Lesley Black, special educational needs (SEN) advisor at the charity Contact a Family, ‘no school will want to overwhelm a child who has been unwell or dealing with difficult circumstances by expecting them to do extra homework or catch up on work during playtimes.’ 

Schools will prioritise catching up with work in maths and English – the core subjects – over other subjects. ‘It’s quite common for schools to have small groups of children who need support with numeracy or literacy, and children who’ve been away from school will often slot into one of these,’ Lesley explains. They may be given extra one-to-one help by a teaching assistant (TA) to help them catch up.

If you want to give your child a boost at home, speak to their teacher about how you can best help. ‘There are lots of games-based learning activities online that consolidate maths and English skills, and there are practical things you can do like reading aloud and cooking together,’ Lesley says. ‘But be aware that if your child has been ill they might find the school day very tiring, and may not be up to much formal homework.’

Returning to school: fitting back in

Despite the fact that schools are under increasing pressure to ensure children achieve, your child’s school is likely to be far more concerned about their wellbeing as they return to school. Your school should help your child to keep in touch with their classmates while they’re absent, for example through visits, emails, letters or video calls. They also have a duty to help your child reintegrate once they’re well enough for school.

‘Children who’ve been absent for a long time may find it hard to fit back in,’ Lesley agrees. ‘Friendship groups may have changed, for example, or they may be unable to do the things they used to do, like running around at playtime.’ They may feel embarrassed if their appearance has changed as a result of their illness or treatment, or if they’re behind their peers in terms of learning. ‘It’s vital that schools are aware of the possibility of bullying and stay on guard,’ Lesley says.

Your child may also feel awkward if they’re bombarded with questions about why they’ve been away. Sometimes, they’re so reluctant to draw attention to themselves that they put up with discomfort or distress rather than asking a teacher for help. Some children, however, are happier with everything out in the open and even like to stand up in front of the class to explain what’s been happening. If your child has a specialist nurse or a social worker, they may be happy to visit the class, either with or without your child, to answer their classmates’ questions.

‘It’s important that schools are sensitive about your child’s needs when they’re considering what information to share with their classmates and the wider school community, and that they make sure your child has someone they can ask for help,’ Lesley says. ‘This could be a school counsellor or the special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) rather than their class teacher.’

Returning to school: the Individual Healthcare Plan

A key part of your child’s return to school after illness may be the creation of an Individual Healthcare Plan. This is a formal document that sets out things like:

  • What their condition is
  • What medication they take
  • Who, in the school community, can administer their medication
  • What to do in an emergency
  • Arrangements that need to be made to enable your child to attend school, such as a quiet rest area

‘You and your child should be central in drawing up the individual healthcare plan,’ says Lesley. Other people involved in your child’s care may also be involved, such as their GP, paediatrician or specialist nurse. The plan will identify if anyone needs to be given special training to administer medication or otherwise help care for your child at school. If so, someone from your child’s medical team is likely to arrange this.

The plan should be reviewed regularly, and at least once a year.