Intervention Strategies for Terminal Illness

Excerpted from Disruption, Disaster, and Death: Helping Students Deal with Crises.

It is not unlikely that students, during the prekindergarten through 12th grade experience, will have a classmate or will know someone within the school environment (e.g., teacher, paraprofessional, custodian) who has a terminal illness.

Often, the individual with the terminal illness undergoes significant physical, emotional, and perhaps behavioral changes as the illness progresses. Loss of hair, weight loss, irritability, depression, and other manifestations may be observed. Parents and family members should be encouraged to provide as much factual information about the illness as possible to school personnel, and permission should be sought to share information, as needed, with staff members and students.

It is recommend to share information about the illness with students at a time when the affected individual is not present, especially if he or she is a peer. The discussion should begin by encouraging students to talk about any changes in the individual they may have observed (e.g., hair loss, weight loss, and skin color). Factual information about the illness should be provided, with special emphasis placed on the idea that the illness cannot be transmitted to others. Younger children may have to be reminded of the latter concept frequently.

The potential for the individual's death should be discussed openly and honestly, allowing for student questions and concerns. The discussion should also engage students in discussing proactive strategies for interacting positively with the sick individual. Students should be guided toward treating the individual as normally as possible.

More on Helping Students Deal With Crises.

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