Academic Support for Students with Serious Illnesses Learning Options, Resources & Tips to Help Students Succeed in School

Insider Perspective

Sarah Cox is a publicity executive living in New York City. Read bio

Written by…

Shannon Lee Read bio

When someone is diagnosed with a serious health condition, priorities can drastically change. But being so focused on coping – or in some cases, just surviving – doesn’t mean education must fall to the wayside. Fortunately, there are many resources available for students diagnosed with a serous illness to succeed in school and even more information for educators and families looking to support them along the way. Continue reading to learn about these resources and how to help students with serious illnesses reach their academic goals.

Understanding Serious Illnesses and Their Impact on Learning

Besides missing class for a doctor’s visit or to receive medical treatment, serious illnesses can have other effects on students’ learning. Let’s start by looking at what constitutes a serious illness and how they can hinder success in school.

20 percent of young adults have a mental health condition. (Source)

Every 24 hours, more than 40 children will receive a cancer diagnosis. (Source)

In the United States, about 9 million children have asthma. (Source)

What are serious illnesses?

A “serious illness” has no common technical definition. The Family and Medical Leave Act provides a good starting point in that it defines a serious health condition as any injury, illness, impairment or condition that results in either inpatient medical care or ongoing treatment with a health care provider. Basically, a serious illness can be thought of as any illness that is not quickly and easily cured or an illness that human body cannot fix on its own in a fairly short period of time.

Examples of ailments are wouldn’t be thought of as serious (for most healthy people) include the common cold or flu. In categorizing an illness as serious, there are several characteristics to consider, such as likelihood of death, extent it impairs the individual and level of medical care required to treat the illness. For example, headaches wouldn’t be considered a serious illness, but debilitating migraines might be.

What are types of serious illnesses?

Due to the various characteristics of a serious illness, there are a large number that students may experience. A few examples include:

  • AIDS
  • Cancer
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Asthma
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Diseases of the heart
  • Congenital malformations
  • Endometriosis
  • Severe mental health issues, like depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia
  • Diabetes
  • Acute kidney disease
  • Dementia

These illnesses commonly have some or all the following characteristics, which classifies them as serious.

  • They require inpatient care. An individual must receive treatment from a health care facility, such as a residential clinic or hospital.

  • They require long-term care. A serious illness will likely require years of medical care and follow up visits to the doctor.

  • The illness can be incapacitating. If an illness is serious enough to make someone miss school or work for more than a few days, it means they’re probably in a lot of pain or the illness is significantly affecting their ability to engage in daily activities.

  • It has a high rate of mortality. An illness is considered very serious if there’s a substantial chance it can lead to the death of even the healthiest of people. An extreme example of a serious illness would be pancreatic cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, pancreatic cancer has a five-year survival rate of between 12 and 14 percent for those with Stage 1A or 1B cancer. For those with Stage IV cancer, the five-year survival rate is about 1 percent. Luckily, pancreatic cancer is almost nonexistent in children and young adults.

What’s the difference between chronic conditions and serious health conditions?

Even within the medical community, there is no absolute consensus on what exactly constitutes a serious or chronic health condition. One reason is because one factor in determining the severity of an illness is whether it is chronic or not.

However, a common understanding of a “chronic” illness is an illness that lasts for a long time; a good rule of thumb is that it lasts longer than three months. Other considerations are the speed at which it progresses and whether it’s curable or not. A slowly developing illness that’s incurable is more likely to be considered chronic.

A serious illness can have the same characteristics as a chronic ailment, but also may progress quickly, seriously impair the individual’s ability for daily living, cause death in a short period of time and result in the individual seeking significant medical treatment.

Many health ailments will overlap the definition of chronic and serious illness. A good example is cancer. Many cancers take years to progress and are incurable, but can also cause severe impairment in the individual, often result in death and usually require inpatient treatment.

What challenges do students with serious illnesses face in school?
  • Absenteeism. Missing class is common due to the ongoing need for medical treatment. Not only does missing class time reduce a student’s ability to receive instruction, but it also has other negative effects, such as increased anxiety and less contact with peers. This makes it harder for students to make or keep friends, further reducing their opportunity to receive emotional or academic support.

  • Poor motivation. When a student is fighting for their life, enjoying that party, television show or other enjoyable activity is likely to take a priority over school. Or perhaps they will choose an academic course of study that’s less challenging because they believe there’s no point in working so hard to earn a degree.

  • Inability to focus or concentrate. This might come about as a side effect of medical treatment or medications. Anxiety also plays a factor. Serious illness may come with financial strain, creating additional worry and distraction from school.

  • Getting into trouble. Students with serious illness can also suffer from behavioral issues. This can have many causes, such as the illness itself or side effects from the medications or treatments the student is receiving. This not only interrupts the student’s learning, but potentially the learning of other students. This might lead to further social or academic isolation.

  • Victims of bullying or teasing. Students with serious illnesses that are easily identifiable make easy targets for teasing, bullying and social isolation. Sometimes it’s the result of cruel or mean students, but it can also be due to ignorance, such as when fellow classmates incorrectly believe the student with the serious illness is contagious.

  • Lower academic performance. Take all the factors above and add in serious fatigue, pain, trouble getting enough rest, and so much time devoted to dealing with the illness, and it’s no wonder students with a serious illness often turn in a lower-than-ideal academic performance.

Accommodations & Academic Adjustments in School

Society and government has come a long way in accommodating students with serious illness. There are a number of laws and regulations designed to protect students who may be at a disadvantage due to their medical condition. Continue reading to learn about student’s rights in college and how to receive academic accommodations.

Because serious illnesses often qualify as a legally protected disability, numerous legal rights provide accommodations for these students. However, it may not always be clear to teachers and school officials that a student needs an accommodation and what type of accommodation to provide. The following guides provide an overview of how students can obtain the academic accommodations they are legally entitled to.

The extensive legal framework in place to help students with serious medical and health issues commonly revolves around providing learning accommodations. Some of the most common are discussed below.

  • Testing accommodations. Depending on their limitations, students may get extra time, take the test in a modified format or use special aids, such as optical character recognition or speech-to-text. Hospitalized students may receive individually proctored exams.

  • Assignment accommodations. Teachers or professors may give special assignments to students who cannot complete the regularly assigned project. For example, if students are to attend an artistic performance, a student who is receiving medical treatment at the time and is unable to attend may be able to watch an alternative performance on video.

  • Extended or modified deadlines. Students may receive extra time to complete assignments due to absences or time taken for medical treatment or may be given work early so they can complete it at an easier pace.

  • Physical accommodations. Schools may provide special transportation services or vehicles to accommodate a student’s physical needs, such as when a student is in a wheelchair.

  • Out-of-classroom academic instruction. Special teachers may provide classroom instruction at home or in the hospital. Distance learning options may help students who spend extended time outside the classroom.

  • Use of auxiliary aids. Common examples include tape recorders to help record lectures and voice recognition computer software for students who can’t type or write my hand.

  • Modified attendance policy. Schools and professors may waive or modify attendance policies for students who can’t regularly attend class.

  • Additional or special breaks. Whether it’s during a test or regular class, students may take prearranged breaks, receive additional breaks, or have a lengthened break to deal with their personal medical issues, like taking medications.

  • Preferential classroom seating. Teachers can allow students to sit where it’s easier for them, such as in the front row to better see the board or near a classroom exit so they can more easily leave the room for frequent breaks.

  • Extra academic assistance. Students may have access to special instructors, personal assistants or tutors to help them learn the material and complete assignments.

Disclosing and Talking About Serious Illnesses with Educators

Depending on how serious an illness is, students may decide not to tell their teachers or school about it. They are under no obligation to do so. However, if a student does choose to disclose, here are some points to keep in mind.

  • Decide how much information to provide. If no formal accommodations are necessary, a student might not need to disclose anything, or they might choose to disclose only the basics to one particular professor. Those who need formal accommodations can choose to provide only the legally required amount information necessary to receive learning accommodations.

  • Identify which school official to talk to. Every school will have an individual or department to contact concerning a student’s need for special accommodations. Contacting the right place is important because it establishes that the student provided proper notice to the school about their medical condition and the need for an accommodation.

  • Carefully follow the required notice policies. There might be specific people to notify, forms to use and deadlines to meet to ensure accommodations are provided in a timely fashion. Follow every requirement; if it is ever necessary to file a grievance, the student will have a much stronger argument if they can prove they followed all requested steps.

  • Figure out when to tell the teacher or school official. It’s best to notify the appropriate school official as soon as possible, especially since certain deadlines might exist. For instance, the school may require notification 60 days in advance of the student arriving on campus, so they can make arrangements for accommodations.

Learning Options for Students with Serious Health Conditions

Sitting in a classroom isn’t the only way to learn. Students with serious health conditions can explore these additional avenues.

Online learning is an excellent opportunity for students with serious illnesses. Instruction is often asynchronous, which allows students to “attend” at a time that’s most convenient for them, such as in the evening or on weekends. Online learning is usually available anywhere the student has access to an internet connection, and because it’s available almost everywhere, it provides the greatest flexibility. This means a student doesn’t have to choose between medical treatments and school. There’s also the transportation issue; online learning doesn’t require a student to get to campus.

What academic resources are available online for students with serious illnesses?

The specific online resources available will depend on the distance program offered by the school. In many instances, distance learning is an accommodation in and of itself. However, online students can obtain additional accommodations as necessary, such as modified assignments, extended deadlines or an adjusted online attendance policy. At the very least, students taking an online class should have access to a teacher or special instruction through multiple channels, including email, telephone, video or voice conferencing, message boards or instant messaging.

What online learning options are available to students?

The availability of options will first depend on whether the school has an online learning system in place. Some colleges and universities offer fully online programs to everyone. And many high schools offer online- only courses as well, even for those who aren’t receiving any special accommodations. If a school does offer online learning, the coursework could be presented in any number of ways, such as online textbooks, live or recorded video/audio lectures, assignments that can be completed online and computer testing.

The level of accommodations required by the student will be the second determining factor. If a student needs minimal accommodations, they may not have the full gamut of online services available to them, even if the school could provide it. To learn more about what online learning options are possible at each academic level, check out the following links.

Homebound services are designed for those too sick to attend school or those with severe disabilities. Homebound services are not the same as home schooling because parents or guardians do not bear the cost of providing the instruction (like paying for materials and textbooks) and it’s the school that establishes what the student will learn, not the parent.

As the name implies, homebound services usually take place at home. However, each school has its own policies, procedures and requirements, including where homebound services are available. For example, some schools don’t actually provide the special instruction at the student’s home, but rather at another public site, such as a library.

Other benefits of homebound instruction include:

  • The student is not required to attend the school’s physical location.
  • The student will learn about the same academic subjects as their peers.
  • Homebound services are usually flexible enough to be offered for both short and long-term instruction.

An IEP is a customized education plan for a student who needs special instruction. A variety of professionals work together to create and implement the IEP, including teachers, psychologists, and counselors. IEP services are provided free of charge and have the following benefits:

  • The services are tailored to the student’s specific needs.
  • IEPs are designed for students who have difficulty learning, regardless of the reason.
  • The goal of the IEP is to offer instruction in the least restrictive environment possible, which often means keeping the student in an environment that is as traditional as possible. This provides IEP students the opportunity to interact with their peers.

A flexible learning plan, or FLP, provides extra academic instruction and support in certain academic subjects. The ultimate goal of an FLP is to improve the student’s test scores and learning. The additional instruction can take many forms, including instruction provided by a teacher or through a computer program. Other benefits of an FLP include:

  • FLPs do not interfere with regular school. Most FLP sessions will occur when regular classes are not being held, such as before or after school.
  • FLPs can be self-paced, allowing students to take as much time as they need to fully comprehend and understand the academic subject.
  • FLPs are especially useful for helping at-risk students, who are often identified through their test scores.

Student can receive additional instruction from a tutor. The tutor can be a fellow classmate, private instructor or a teacher. Tutoring can take place anywhere and at any time that the student and school can agree upon. Most tutoring takes place one-on-one, so the tutor can give the student undivided attention.

Tutoring is usually less formal than classroom instruction. This can be particularly advantageous to students who are overwhelmed by the many different things happening around them in a classroom. The less formal setting may make the student feel more at ease and allow them to personally connect or interact with the tutor, which can aid in the effectiveness of the academic instruction.

Other benefits of tutoring include:

  • Tutors can immediately focus on the academic trouble areas.
  • Tutoring instruction can begin and end quickly, on an as-needed basis.
  • Tutoring has a clear record of academic effectiveness.

Supporting Students with Serious Illnesses: A Toolkit for Parents and Teachers

It’s amazing what an individual can accomplish with the proper support. A supportive teacher might be the single most important advocate a student can have in school. It’s a lot easier to learn from a teacher who is more than happy to provide an accommodation than one who only does it because they know they must under federal or state law.

But sometimes enthusiasm and a willingness to help a student with a serious illness may not be enough. The following tips should help the teachers and family members provide the best support possible to their student and child.

  • Treat the student as normal. A serious illness translates into certain special needs; however, they can still reach their full potential, and should be encouraged to do so.

  • Be understanding of problems. A student dealing with significant pain might not really care about the grade they make on that big test. Understand that medications, pain, fatigue and other issues can make it seem as though they aren’t trying their best – but they probably are.

  • Learn about your student’s health issue. Showing that you know a little bit about what your students has been diagnosed with shows that you care and want to learn more about them.

  • Simplify exam or project instructions. Medications and treatments can make it hard to concentrate and focus, so breaking down instructions into easier to understand chunks may be necessary.

  • Be as inclusive as possible. Yes, a student with a serious illness is different and needs special attention. But try to include them with anything the class does. Socialization can be extremely beneficial for a student suffering from a serious illness.

  • Be ready to listen. Even students without a serious illness will sometimes share things with teachers that they don’t share with their parents. Being a sounding board can help eliminate some of the intense stress the student is under.

  • Take good notes and keep records. Taking detailed notes and keeping all medical records, government forms and applications can make it much easier and faster to make an accommodation request.

  • Start early on accommodations. When dealing with government programs or public schools, things usually take a bit longer than you might expect. So, get started early when contacting the appropriate people and departments.

  • Enlist the help of your child’s doctor. The doctor will have the information necessary to fully understand the challenges your child may face, as well as help you request accommodations for learning.

  • Learn about other forms of support. For instance, hospitals may have special programs to accommodate patients who are also in school and intend to receive academic instruction at the hospital or complete school assignments while receiving treatment.

  • Stay in touch. Maintaining connections is helpful when you need information or assistance from a former doctor or teacher. It’s also good for your child to stay in touch with their friends, even during extended periods away from school. Social media is a wonderful thing in this situation.

Sarah Cox: My Experience Balancing School and a Serious Illness

Sarah Cox is a publicity executive living in New York City. She has experience in social media account management as well as traditional public relations and has provided services for clients in industries including hospitality, entertainment, travel, food & beverage and health & wellness.

Q. Tell me a bit about your health situation in college. How long did it take for you to get properly diagnosed and treated for endometriosis?

A. During my sophomore year in college I started having really heavy periods that resulted in pain even when I was not menstruating. It took four doctors in two cities before I got a proper diagnosis. Most doctors including those at my university brushed off my pain as recurring UTI’s, even though my tests for the infections were coming back negative. Eventually, I was in so much pain that I got nerve damage due to constant tension in my pelvic floor muscles. I was finally diagnosed after about five months, which was also after I got D’s and C’s on all of my midterms that semester. I was brushing off the pain as something I could ‘power through’ and that definitely wasn’t the case. 

Q. What were the biggest struggles you faced during your college years concerning endometriosis? 

A. The biggest struggles were definitely keeping up with my grades and getting a proper diagnosis. I went through a period where I was so exhausted and in pain that I was stuck in this place of “why won’t they (doctors) help me?” It was also a struggle to let go of a mind-over-matter attitude. My body was definitely not listening to my mind and coming to terms with that was rough. 

Q. What kind of support can friends and fellow students give to those with a serious illness?

A. Because I was away at school for most of the time I was sick, the support I really wanted was someone to go to the doctor with me. This was especially important because I felt like doctors weren’t listening to me and therefore not on ‘my side.’ For friends and fellow student, just making the effort to be there makes all the difference. 

Q. What role did your peers play in helping you through it?

A. I had a great roommate in college who had similar health struggles, so she was a really great source of support for me. We could talk, do some restorative yoga together (which really helped) and it made the days where I just had to sit at home much more livable. 

Q. What advice would you give to college students facing a serious condition? 

A. Trust your gut. You know your body better than any doctor. If you’ve been treated and you still feel like something’s wrong, go back to the doctor and speak up. Also, do your research and ask questions. Because of my nerve damage, getting into physical therapy was the thing that helped me most, but that didn’t happen right away because it’s not a traditional form of treatment.