MS and school: supporting your child’s education

Early starts, timetables, maths… School days can be challenging, but if your child has MS then navigating the education system can take on a whole new dimension for you both.

First up, it’s hugely important that you speak to the school about your child’s medical condition. The symptoms of MS are variable, both from person to person but also over time, so it’s in your child’s best interest to get a plan in place long before any issues arise.

Most children with MS have only mild symptoms, however a small percentage experience symptoms that affect their daily lives. The fact that many of the symptoms of MS are invisible is all the more reason to make the school aware – we know that MS can affect energy levels and cognitive processing, for example, as well as cause vision issues. Ensure that the necessary steps are put in place to ensure your child has the support system (both emotionally and educationally) that they need.

Helping the school to help your child

MS is rare in children, so don’t be surprised if the school isn’t familiar with the disease, particularly the ways in which it could affect learning. At this stage you may find you have to teach the teachers! Go armed with a few print outs (there are helpful resources for teachers on the National Multiple Sclerosis Society website), including a list of possible symptoms that could affect your child.

All schools (in the US, at least) are legally bound to accommodate pupils’ medical needs and will liaise with your child’s teacher and a special education needs advisor accordingly. Together you can sit down and devise a management plan to ensure that MS has the least possible impact on your child’s school experience.

Close communication between you and the school will be key to supporting your child, so setting up a diary you can use to pass feedback between you and the staff is a good idea. This will allow the school to make day-to-day adjustments in the classroom when necessary ¬– if your child is struggling with fatigue, for example, then it may be that PE is scheduled later in the day; if concentration is an issue then shifting more challenging classes to mid-morning or just after lunch will be beneficial. If your child is experiencing difficulty with memory or concentration, allowing more time to complete tasks as well as the provision of one-on-one support in the classroom may also be helpful. Regular bathroom breaks may also be required.

Absences are to be expected, particularly for hospital appointments, so keeping the school in the loop will allow them to provide extra home learning if necessary to make sure your child doesn’t fall behind.

Of course, your child’s emotional needs are just as important as their academic ones. Living with a chronic condition like MS can feel like a huge burden for a child, while brain changes can also affect mood. Liaising closely with the school will help you to monitor your child’s behaviour closely and offer extra emotional support if they are experiencing difficulties.

Listening to your child

While it’s good to make allowances for your child, the last thing you want is for them to feel singled out. Your child may not even want their classmates to know they have a medical condition, in which case you and their teachers will need to act with discretion. You’ll also have to avoid the urge to take over – playing a supportive role in your child’s school life is one thing, being a pushy parent is another. Following your loved one’s lead is an important part of helping them to develop a sense of independence and self-esteem, so you’ll need to respect their choices.

Whether it’s acute shyness, a nut allergy, or an aversion to PE, all children face their own challenges in the classroom. Your child happens to have MS, but with good communication, planning and support, there’s no reason it should get in the way of their learning, or indeed fun. Whether or not they enjoy maths is another matter…

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