Managing School Transitions with Juvenile Arthritis

Help your child with JA make school transitions easier.

By Mary Anne Dunkin 

Starting in kindergarten, you had to learn to entrust your child’s care to school personnel and teachers. While your child probably adjusted quickly, transitioning from elementary to middle school or middle to high school can cause anxiety for both of you. The change can involve tougher classes, a longer school day and more homework. For a child with arthritis, challenges may also include heavier textbooks, crowded hallways and new teachers who may not know about their condition and how it affects kids. 

Below you’ll find some of the most common issues that kids face during school transitions, as well as advice on how to help your child thrive.

Common Issues

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, his strengths and his limitations well. Now, he may have a different teacher every hour and 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, 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. After the teachers get to know your child it likely won’t be a problem at all, because they’ll understand what issues are related to his condition. 

If you feel it’s necessary, establish a schedule to email your child’s teachers for feedback on how she’s doing. If your child has a 504 Plan send along a copy of that to each teacher for your child’s file, says Jones. A 504 plan ensures that your child is supported and accommodated in ways that make his education experience more equal to his peers. It’s a good idea to have one in place, even if it’s just in case of emergency. 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. “For example, the school could make accommodations where 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 a particular class, you might have more luck going to the individual teacher. “Some teachers are more flexible than others, and they make their own agreement with the student if there is mutual respect and your child is doing well,” says Gini Falconer, a mother whose daughter was diagnosed with arthritis at 18 months old.
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. 

Taking Tests

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 the answers – even if she knows them well – in the time allotted. Fatigue and pain can also 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 Falconer. You and your child will need time to see how side effects of the drug will affect them and their ability to concentrate and focus. 

Carrying Books

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. In a 504 plan, you may be able to get an extra set of set of books for your kid to keep at home, so he doesn’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.

Between talking to teachers and administrators and having a 504 plan in place, you should be able to ensure a positive school experience for your child. As always, keep lines of communication open until everyone gets used to your child’s arthritis-related needs and be persistent about fixing issues that may arise. 

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