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Child Life Series: Supporting your Child’s Education through Hospitalization

January 17th, 2024  | Child Life Resources  | News  | Resources


As any parent may attest, there are times throughout the year when supporting your child’s schoolwork can cause stress. After all, when — no — why did they change math? As a parent or caregiver of a medically complex child who may undergo several planned or unplanned hospitalizations, you may know all too well the stress that comes with navigating the demands of schoolwork with the challenges that come with spending a prolonged time in a hospital or at home healing and recovering.

That’s why Annie Gunning, Hope for HIE’s certified child life specialist, recently engaged in a Q&A session aimed at equipping parents with valuable tools, strategies, and resources that will help them, along with educators and hospital staff, support a child’s education for the duration of their hospitalization and to help them transition back into the classroom, post-recovery.

Read on for access to Annie’s expertise and toolbox of resources!

What is the role of a Child Life Specialist?

In her role as the Child Life Specialist at Hope for HIE, Annie’s main objective is to help children and families navigate medicalized life. She focuses on empowering and supporting both children and their caregivers, fostering the ability to advocate for their needs while simultaneously reducing stress, pain, and anxiety. This often looks like support for patients and their families facing surgeries, tests, procedures, diagnoses, and hospitalizations by offering preparation, creating personalized coping plans, providing education, fostering creative expression, and incorporating medical play.

If you’re looking to seek the services of a Child Life Specialist in a hospital setting, check with the hospital’s healthcare team! You can reach out to their child life department, pediatric unit, or patient services to inquire about the availability and services provided by a Child Life Specialist, or you can see if your hospital has information on their website regarding the roles and contact details of their dedicated CCLS.

How can parents and educators work together to develop a proactive plan before hospitalization, ensuring a coordinated approach to supporting the child’s education during their prolonged absence?

You’re not in this alone: your child’s school and school staff are (and should be) partners in helping you create a reliable, attainable, and coordinated plan for ensuring that your child is still receiving and engaging in a strong learning plan outside of the classroom. Consider these steps to help you formulate that plan:


Recruit a team of relevant staff to help!

After all, your child has a healthcare team, so why shouldn’t they have an educational one, too? This could range from counselors, learning consultants, special education teachers, social workers, and more — all have a unique role to play in supporting you and your child during their prolonged absence:

  • Counselors: Not only can they provide emotional and psychological support leading up to and throughout the duration of your child’s hospitalization, but they are typically experts in understanding how to request additional services, like tutoring support.
  • Learning Consultants: This is a role that goes by many names, but learning consultants are essentially support staff who provide tiered support to students in need of intervention services. They are pros at working with general education teachers to create accommodations and, in more serious circumstances, modifications to their curriculum. If your child has a 504 in place, it’s likely they see a learning consultant on a daily or alternating basis.
  • Special Education Teachers: These teachers typically offer daily or alternating services to children with IEPs (individualized education plans). They are wonderful resources for helping to tailor learning plans to accommodate the student’s needs and ensure continuity in their education.
  • Social Workers: School social workers support a student’s education during hospitalization by addressing their social and emotional needs, facilitating communication between the school and medical team, and providing resources to maintain a supportive learning environment.


Create an open line of communication with the teachers, counselors, and support staff.

➡️ If you have advance notice of the hospitalization, request a meeting with your child’s school administrators, teachers, and relevant support staff to share pertinent information about the upcoming medical situation, anticipated duration of absence, and any specific needs your child may have.

➡️ Ensure that you work together to establish a clear line and cadence of communication to eliminate any confusion or miscommunication during their absence.


Establish clear work and learning expectations in advance.

➡️ It’s safe to say that schoolwork is quick to add up, especially if very few accommodations are made to the learning plan. That’s why it’s important to know that learning standards are typically cyclical, meaning that many of them are covered (to a varying degree) across multiple units.

➡️ With that in mind, request that the teacher only focus on assigning material that covers the learning objectives that are specific and unique to that unit. This, of course, varies across teachers, classrooms, and grades, but it is definitely worth discussing. Perhaps that means fewer assignments; perhaps it means the same amount of assignments but with a reduced number of questions, steps, or standards.


Discuss how to foster inclusion and empathy in the classroom and among peers regarding your child’s hospitalization and medical needs.

➡️ Brainstorm together how to help classmates understand your child’s situation, making sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to fostering a supportive atmosphere that’s all about acceptance and kindness.

➡️ This can look different for every child: some may have the ability and willingness to talk to their classmates about their upcoming hospitalization — whether that’s through a rehearsed speech or conversation, a presentation, or an informal talk — while others may prefer a more private approach.

What are some common fears and challenges children typically face in their effort to have a continuous education during their hospitalization, and what are some solutions to help alleviate these worries?

Focusing on all that comes with hospitalization and recovery while also trying to keep up with their education naturally comes with its own set of fears and challenges for children of all ages. Annie has a list of versatile strategies that you can use to help your child navigate these hurdles so they can have a more stable experience despite the unique circumstances of a hospital stay.


  • Falling behind with schoolwork and feeling lost upon returning to the classroom.
  • Experiencing an unexpected obstacle or challenge that prolongs their absence or worsens their condition.
  • Being the subject of peer judgment, gossip, or conversation.
  • Being treated differently for changes in their appearance or abilities.
  • Feeling disconnected from their peers or excluded from important events.
  • Not knowing how to navigate conversations about their illness or hospitalization.
  • Being separated from parents, siblings, and other family members for a long duration of time.
  • How to handle changes to new medical, physical, or dietary needs upon returning to school.


  • Rehearse conversations, questions, and answers they may have with peers and teachers.
  • Role-play conversations to help them predict and respond to questions that arise. Consider using stuffed animals to help our younger kiddos.
  • Help them establish boundaries regarding aspects of their illness or hospitalization they’d rather not discuss.
  • Celebrate all progress and victories — even the “inchstones.”
  • Provide outlets for creative expression, play, and processing.
  • Provide encouragement and validate their emotions: tell them what you’re proud of, and mention that it’s okay that they are feeling this way.
  • Listen to understand, not necessarily to fix the problem or fear.
  • Have regular check-ins: consider special, undivided playtime with young ones, and immerse yourself in your older one’s interests or hobbies.

We know that hospitalizations don’t just impact the patient; this experience can cause stress for the whole family. For more ways to help your child and the whole family cope with stress, take a look at our previous Child Life Q&A with Annie, in which she explores the ways in which you can help to alleviate some of these tensions through creative expression, play, and other developmentally appropriate strategies.

How can parents, child life specialists, and other hospital staff contribute to the success of the patient’s learning plan while they are at the hospital?

Parents, caregivers, hospital staff, and child life specialists all have ways in which they can contribute to the success of the patient’s learning plan. While each team member has their own special skill set, Annie wants you to know that a collaborative approach will make this experience more enjoyable, accessible, and successful for all involved.

Strategies for Parents and Caregivers

1️⃣ Find ways to encourage peer connection, whether that’s through small get-togethers with their friends prior to returning to school, or setting up video chats while they are in the hospital or at home recovering. Giving them opportunities to reconnect with their friends or classmates is crucial to decreasing feelings of isolation.

2️⃣ Incorporate play when you can, especially for our younger kiddos. Some parents have had success in feeling identification and expression by encouraging their child to speak through the use of one of their stuffed animals.

3️⃣ Don’t be afraid to advocate for your child’s needs or ask questions about what resources the hospital can provide, whether it’s a quiet space to learn or borrowing technology for schoolwork.

4️⃣ Brainstorm ways to give your child a sense of control. Creating a daily routine chart or calendar and filling in some blanks with “knowns” can help them feel like they have regained some ownership and autonomy over their circumstances.

How a Child Life Specialist Can Help

1️⃣ While in the hospital, a child life specialist can link families and patients to other families/peers with similar situations or stories to better foster empathy and connection.

2️⃣ They can provide outlets and opportunities for children across all ages, impacts, and outcomes to express their emotions, process, learn, and ask questions about their situation. These interactions can alleviate stress and anxiety and result in a more conducive learning environment.

3️⃣ They can refer you to a multitude of resources within that hospital, including a potential in-house school program or teacher. This also includes potential access to an iPad, computer, or quiet learning space to facilitate continued school work. Again, this varies across hospitals, but as the expert of that workplace, the child life specialist will be able to guide you to the right, available resources.

4️⃣ They can also help you and your child create a daily routine chart or calendar. They can help diversify some of the daily slots and activities to include therapies, opportunities for play and connection, school work, meals, and peer interactions.

5️⃣ Child life specialists can also facilitate collaboration with your child’s classroom teacher and peers by offering opportunities for connectedness. One popular strategy that Annie has used for younger patients is “Monkey in my Chair,” in which she works with the patient’s schoolteacher(s) to put a stuffed animal monkey in their seat to act as a tangible symbol of them during their absence. Teachers and classmates can engage with the monkey, write messages, or draw pictures to send to the absent child, fostering a sense of community and support within the classroom.

What steps can parents, caregivers, and educators take to ease the child’s transition back to school?

Navigating the return to school after a prolonged absence can be a significant transition, so Annie has generated some actionable steps that parents, caregivers, and educators can collaboratively take to ensure a smooth and supportive reintegration into the school environment.

  • Consider a phased transition.
    This could look like a reduced school day or a reduced workload as the child regains strength and becomes more comfortable with the reestablished routine.
  • Educate the class.
    The teacher, support staff, or your child, if they are willing, can talk to the class about their needs or any other potential changes that they’ll notice upon their return.
  • Ask for extended time.
    This could be in terms of assignments and tests, but it could also mean extended time in between class periods to give your child more time (and space) to go to their locker, travel to their next period, and not have to worry about a crowded or chaotic hallway environment.
  • Ask for tutoring services or homework help programs.
    Some schools offer after-school homework help, where designated school staff can assist students with their homework in a one-on-one or small group setting. Some schools may also offer free tutoring services to help your child bridge any potential learning gaps or help them become more confident with the material. In the event that your child is older, perhaps a student-led leadership program, like a National Honor Society, can provide opportunities for peer-to-peer tutoring.
  • Ask if your hospital’s child life specialist can provide school reentry support.
    Believe it or not, some hospitals can contribute to your child’s successful transition back to school by facilitating communication with the child’s school, coordinating with an educational liaison, and/or developing personalized transition plans.
  • Be patient.
    Know that change is hard. It can take some time, trial and error, and a lot of readjusting expectations until you all feel like you’ve regained a sense of normalcy. Try to remember that every child’s situation is unique and that your family’s situation may look different than others.

What resources, tools, technologies, or online platforms do you recommend for parents and caregivers to use to support their child’s education during a hospital stay?

  • LearnWell: Some hospitals have an online tutoring platform called LearnWell. This is really geared for patients who are in the hospital for an extended period of time. They will use your child’s profile to match with one of their tutors, who will then help you create a routine/schedule to meet virtually!
  • Hospital school teachers or social workers: Not only can these professionals, if available at your hospital, assist your child with their education and emotional well-being, but they also have the know-how to bridge the gap between school and the hospital.
  • Child Life on Call: And, of course, take advantage of Hope for HIE’s partnership with Child Life on Call: with this, you have direct access to our Child Life Specialist, Annie, who can provide you with individualized services and and access to group programs, as well as free access to the Child Life on Call app, which provides you with a range of child life specialist resources in your pocket! Simply download the app, select Hope for HIE, and enter code 048325.
  • Hope for HIE’s Comprehensive Support Network: If you want to request services or just learn more about what Child Life services can do to support you and your family, head to HIE.Support to fill out the intake form and get started!
  • Recommended Books: Annie has curated a thoughtful list of books aimed at aiding children with medical complexities and their siblings in understanding and navigating a range of emotions, including stress and anxiety. Take a look to see if any may work for your child and family!

Watch the full recording, along with our other Child Life Q&As, on Hope for HIE’s YouTube channel under the Child Life Series playlist, or download our Key Takeaway resource for an at-a-glance look at how to help your kids cope with stress!



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