If you know that one of your pupils’ parents has cancer, then it is important you give it some thought. Usually at school there are protocols for when someone dies, but how to act during a period of illness is less well-known.
How do you approach the pupil concerned? What are the most common reactions and behaviour? Which questions would you like to ask the parents? In what way can the pupil best be guided and where do you get your information from?

In order to be able to give support to the pupil, a lot of information is needed. Usually the school is informed about what is going on in the family very quickly by one of the parents or a relative. If that is not the case, take the initiative yourself and ask the parents the following questions. What exactly is going on? Has the parent been admitted to hospital? Who is looking after the children? Is anything known about the seriousness of the illness? What is the prognosis? What has the pupil been told? What do the parents think the role of the school is? What would the parents like other parents and pupils to know? Who is the contact person? Have a personal conversation with the pupil about the home situation. Try to get an impression of what the pupil knows and what it does to her/him. The question: "How are you doing?" will probably be answered with "fine". Let the pupil spontaneously talk to you and keep asking questions. How does the pupil want to tell classmates or other pupils about it?
Children and young people react just the same way adults do in this situation. They are sad, angry or scared, walk around with feelings of guilt, feel unhappy and alone or behave very cool and pretend there is nothing going on. Insight into the various reactions can help you in your support of the pupils.

Sometimes it seems as if pupils are hardly sad at all. They go to school, play, attend lessons and do their homework as if nothing is going on. Children cannot focus on their sadness the whole day. They need distraction. However, that does not mean that the sadness is not there. Often young children give a primary response and then get on with their daily life. Older children want to live life as normally as possible, but at the same time they are looking for recognition.

Many pupils with a mother or father with cancer are scared. Scared of the hospital environment, of changes in appearance, of the potential loss of the ill parent, of the loss of the healthy parent or of becoming ill themselves. Maybe as a teacher there is nothing you can do about it, but it is on the pupils’ minds and it can more than occupy their thoughts.

Feelings of guilt
Just like adults, children look for causes. There are children who blame themselves for the fact that their mother or father has cancer. They think they said, did, or thought something that caused the cancer. It is also possible that they have the idea they are not doing their utmost.

Some pupils are angry. Angry at the cancer because so much has changed , because home is not “home” anymore, because it is their mother or father who is so ill. They are angry at everything they come across. Being short-tempered often happens.

Sometimes children seem indifferent. They cannot or do not want to show their sadness. They need distraction and just want to be ‘ordinary’. Try to respect your pupils in how they deal with the situation and give them space to come to terms with it in their own way and own time.
Negative behaviour
Persistent negative behaviour is a cry for help. But pay attention to pupils who become too quiet and subdued. Understanding and attention, putting an arm around them, a supportive conversation, all of this can help many children. Does it look like something is going really wrong, then professional help is needed. Consult the parents about how to address this. Of course, not all behaviour can be traced back to the home situation. Sometimes there are just other reasons for why it is not going so well at school.

Concentration and absence
“My head is so full!” is an exclamation that is often heard. Of course that is difficult if you have to learn too. Find a solution about what to do together with the pupil. It would be ideal if the pupil does not get too far behind. Try to find a balance between the demands at school and what is happening. Pupils with a mother or father with cancer do not only worry, but often have to do more at home too. That can also affect homework and concentration. Thinking with them is also necessary now.
  • The pupil withdraws
  • The pupil behaves helplessly
  • The pupil takes a step back in their development
  • The pupil constantly seeks attention
  • The pupil does extremely well at school
  • The pupil is overactive, grumpy or aggressive
  • The pupil is short tempered
  • The pupil has problems socially
  • The pupil has memory and concentration problems
  • The pupil is exhausted
Subtle individual attention
Most pupils want to be normal, just like everybody else. That does not mean they do not need recognition. Therefore, you will have to keep an eye on things. That can be by giving (subtle) individual attention. Take the pupil’s need as a starting point and explore together what the possibilities are. That can be arranging to talk together at a set time. But also a place where the pupil can go to if she/he feels sad or a time-out signal so that the pupil can indicate her/himself that she/he wants to have a break. Encourage the pupil to talk to the person she/he feels at ease with. Often the child cannot say what she/he wants, then the initiative is in your hands. By thinking with them you can already make headway.

Young people among each other
Young people communicate mainly through their own channels. All ups and downs are shared on social media, such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Snapchat. It is good to see how they encourage and support each other, even when one of the parents has cancer. Make your pupils aware that they can go to this website. That is where they will find people in the same situation.

Keeping up to date
Think of a way to keep up to date. Cancer is an illness that can last for a long time and can change unexpectedly. Pupils will go on to the next school year, change their class and/or teacher. Details get lost or forgotten. Pass your information on to your colleagues. Make sure you keep in touch with the parents and arrange for a permanent contact person.
Your own experience can have an influence on the image you have of cancer and the way you handle it. Try to get this clear for yourself. Be open for your pupil’s feelings. Are you emotionally capable of guiding your pupil? If not, ask a colleague for advice.
The most important thing is that you offer safety: a place where the pupil can be her/himself; where she/he is part of group, but also is recognized in her/his own right. Whereas one pupil may benefit from set arrangements, another will be able to indicate her/himself what she/he needs.

If pupils want to tell about their ill mother or father, they deserve all respect. Being laughed at by classmates is absolutely not done. Tom did not want to go to school anymore when he was called names like ‘softie’ and ‘homo’ after he had told that he helped his severely ill father get washed and dressed. If there is sufficient safety and respect, very special things may happen. Nick, for instance, after hesitating about it for some time, asked his class the following question: "Do you also find it very difficult to see your mother or father cry? And what do you do then?"

Cancer is a popular swear word in the Netherlands. It is used in every situation, suitable or not. Pupils who have a mother or father with cancer are extremely sensitive about it. It not infrequently happens that as a reaction to the swearing with cancer, children start kicking or hitting. Do not tolerate any swearing and discuss it.
A lesson about cancer can be really enlightening. Talk about the subject sometimes, even if there is no direct reason to. You will see that there are quite some pupils who have had to deal with it in one way or another. If you plan to talk about the causes of cancer, tread carefully. Pupils who have experienced it at close hand do not have to feel guilty again or be given an extra burden. Preparing a class talk or doing a project can be the perfect way to tell something about cancer. Most pupils do not like to be in the limelight, but such a school assignment can just give them the push they need to make their home situation the subject of discussion.
If one of your pupil’s parents dies of cancer, that pupil desperately needs your support. If you knew about the illness and the prognosis and were involved, then probably you could see it coming and you could be prepared. What do you tell your class? What is your role? And what is the classmates’ role? How can you support the pupil? There are many different ways. For instance, you could go to the funeral, organize something with the class, write a card or a letter.

For information about grieving in children and young people, look at the book list at www.achterderegenboog.nl or at www.in-de-wolken.nl. Many walk-in houses and support centres for people with cancer and their relatives offer programmes for children and young people. Also as teacher you can go there. See www.IPSO.nl for a centre in your neighbourhood.
  • I was so pleased that the teacher finally asked how my father was doing.
  • At school I do not talk about it, not everybody has to know.
  • I had informed my class mentor, but during the report meeting nobody seemed to know anything about it.
  • All that swearing about cancer, it made me want to hit out.
  • Actually, I’d like to give a talk or do a project on cancer.
  • I was totally shocked when the biology teacher suddenly started to talk about cancer.
  • My maths teacher reacted really weirdly when I told her. It seemed as if she didn’t want to hear it and she immediately changed the subject.
  • What’s the use of doing my homework? My mum is going to die anyway.
  • Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one going through this. Do you know anyone by any chance who has been through the same thing?