Back to School Special: What Educators Need to Know About IBD
Fun fact: before I worked in my current job in social media marketing, I entertained the idea of being a high school teacher. I “entertained” it so hard that I minored in secondary education, finishing all my courses and observation hours in a high school.
I opted for a different, more Twitter-centric path in the end, but I remember my classes well. I remember learning about how to help kids who have learning disabilities, and how to cater to different types of learning styles. What I don’t remember them mentioning much (if at all) is how to deal with kids who are chronically ill.
This isn’t an indictment of my education –– there are a million and one diseases out there, and it would be awfully hard to teach you what to do in all million and one instances during one college career. But if you’re a teacher, and you have a student with IBD, there are some things you need to know. And since your students might not have the tools to tell you how they’re feeling due to embarrassment, or nerves, or whatever else, I’m here to do the telling for them.
Don’t make them prove that they’re sick
I understand that when working with kids, you have to be tough or they might try to pull one over on you. But when you have a student with IBD who is telling you they can’t participate in gym class, or they need to go to the bathroom fifteen times a day, they aren’t just trying to find excuses to get out of class. Questioning a kid with Crohn’s or Colitis on whether or not they really need to leave class again can make them feel like they have to hide their symptoms, which can make them a lot sicker. Believe them, believe them, believe them.
Work with them and their parents
A hallmark of being sick as a kid or teen? Missing a lot of school. Whether it’s a flare or a hospitalization or just a bad symptom day, your students with IBD are absolutely going to miss school sometimes. They’re going to do it a lot more than your traditionally healthy students. Work with the student, their family, and the administrators to help them catch up, and don’t make them feel like they’re being punished for being sick. Being sick is already a pretty hefty punishment. (And don’t even get me started on the ableism that is “perfect attendance awards.”)
A lot of schools don’t allow you to get up and use the restrooms during a test, but IBD students need special accommodations that allow them to do that. Some schools have policies that delineate how many classes you can miss before automatically failing –– IBD patients need accommodations for that, too. Many schools don’t allow you to have snacks in the classroom, but some IBD patients are on diets where they need several small meals a day rather than three large ones. Whatever the case may be, encourage the student and their parents to work out a 504 plan with the school. You can find a handy template for one here.
Be there for them
IBD can be a socially isolating disease. Kids (and adults, too, for that matter) often don’t want to talk about it because they’re embarrassed or afraid of judgement. For that reason, students may not have a ton of advocates at school –– but you can be that advocate. Try to make sure your students know they can come to you if they’re feeling overwhelmed balancing the spinning plates that are school and a chronic illness. They may not have a big circle of supportive peers to turn to, but they can have you.
Each individual student’s situation is going to differ, but it’s important to be aware of their needs going into this school year and forever. Crohn’s and Colitis are very mentally taxing diseases (there’s a significant association between having IBD and having anxiety and depression), and feeling stressed by not having advocates at school can make both the physical and mental symptoms worse. But a little education can go a long way! Whatever illness your student is suffering from, do a little reading up on it, and remember that chronically ill kids are a vulnerable population that need great teachers more than ever.