Dear Grace Q & A: How do I succeed in school while sick?

Dear Grace Q & A: How do I succeed in school while sick?

Thank you for such a great question, I have been at school for several years now (advance training in psychotherapeutic counselling) while living with illness, so I hope I can answer you with some insight and experience. 

Here are 3 ideas for how to succeed in school when sick: 

1: Make your needs known, ask for help

A desk with a book, smart phone and someone using a ruler on a notebook on it. Shot from behind. Can see the person's red hat and one hand, holding the ruler.

Many institutions can – and have to – offer reasonable adjustments or accommodations for disabled students. 

Try contacting your school’s disability office to see what’s available. There may be a disability rep in your student union, or a disabled student’s group you can get in touch with. If in doubt, asking one of the college librarians may point you in the right direction. 

Accommodations can include things like a library assistant, who will fetch books for you and photocopy what you need. Or the loan of an adapted computer, an assistant to support you in class, a dictaphone to record lectures if you are too sick to take notes or a rolling bag to carry your books home without hassle and pain. 

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In class, adaptions might be things like getting the slides in advance, a dyslexia support tutor, low lighting for neuro-diverse needs or teachers and students remembering to face you while speaking, so you can lip read effectively. 

In terms of other people, what you might need is supportive friends, for people to bring you things, like your lunch bag or your coat if it’s been left in another room and you are in pain,or  people not to ask you questions when you are hurting. You might set up a code word with your classmates that when you say ‘pass’ they just move on and acknowledge you are struggling without questions or pushing. 

2: Pacing on Point

A woman leaning on a book, gazing to the right.

Pacing is a concept often talked about in relation to chronic illness, especially fatigue issues. It means taking things in stages, pacing both our tasks and our energy so energy doesn’t run out before the tasks are complete. 

I call it compassionate awareness. 

It helps us cope with illness because we enter a day or task with an awareness of how much capacity we have – how much fuel is in the tank, as it were. And hopefully with an accurate perception of the distance we have to travel. 

If we schedule our journey with frequent refuel stops – knowing what fuels us or gives us an energy break is so vital – we can manage our assignments without flares or relapses. 

In school, we need this awareness even more and longer term too. 

Combining school schedule and compassionate awareness schedule

Plan out your academic year – writing on a big piece of paper, plot all your school assignments and deadlines. 

Plan out your health experience in the same academic year, where might you need extra health support? 

E.g upcoming treatments or surgery, times often get ill e.g depression worse in winter or immune compromisation issues in cold weather. 

Where do likely flare points and school assignment deadlines clash? 

Speak to your tutor now, in advance. Can you agree an extension to put in place if needed? Can you move some of the deadlines? How much flexibility is there? 

Reflect what you can do to offset these clashes yourself? What can you prep in advance or put in place now? 

3: What is required to succeed?

A woman writing on a blackboard with a flower in her hair

It seems obvious, its harder to succeed in school when sick. 

It is harder to do almost everything when sick. 

But let us look together at what it takes to succeed in school. 

For this need your school’s student guide book or handbook. 

[P.S If you take just one tip I give you, please, for the love of all that is holy, please read the handbook, the whole student handbook. 

Use paperclips to mark important pages that you want to come back to. 

Read the marking criteria, read the assignment requirements, discuss anything that’s unclear with your tutors. 

Seriously, the handbook is there for a good reason. it may look boring, but plough through and find the gems.] 

So, what does it take to succeed? What are they looking for? 

Critical thinking skills,

Organisational prowess, 

Great memorisation ability, 

Creative potential? 

Look at what’s asked for specifically and the overall skills or aptitudes school is seeking. 

Then ask yourself if you have those, how you might get them and where/how illness might impact it?

For example, if your school wants great memorisation skills for lots of technical terms. How is your memory? Can you develop it? 

How does your impairment impact this? If you have memory difficulties from cognitive dysfunction or struggle with short term memory because of one of your medications, speak to your tutor about allowances. Can you get support and get this taken into account? 

Maybe a doctor’s letter can exempt you from the memorisation and you can show your knowledge in a formal conversational exam, but using your notes to prompt your memory. After all, in working life you are likely to refer to your notes to offset the impact of your impairment. 

Going forward

3 women laughing together

With forethought, clear conversations and accessing the support you require, I hope you find you can succeed in school and learn to do what you love. 

What do you find helps you succeed in school, studies or work? Let me know in the comments

P.S Did you find this useful? Want me to answer YOUR question? I’d love to! You can:

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P.P.S You might also like Dear Grace Q & A: How do I explain that my chronic illness and life aren’t a tragedy? and Dear Grace Q & A: 7 steps to your business come back after chronic illness.

Read all the Dear Grace columns here.

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