If your child has been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (UC), going to school might pose a lot of hurdles. It’s a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and a serious lifetime condition that affects about 80,000 children in America.
Common UC symptoms can get in the way and affect their social life, school attendance, and academic performance, from sticking to class schedules and taking tests to making and keeping friends. But there are ways to manage it. Your kids spend a lot of time at school. Having a solid plan in place can help your child navigate their day-to-day life at school.
What Does Going to School With UC Look Like?
UC symptoms can range from mild to severe, and there may be small periods of time (known as remission) when it goes away. But if your child’s symptoms come back (known as flares), common UC symptoms like diarrhea (usually with blood), belly pain, an urgent need to poop, dehydration, and fatigue can disrupt your child’s school schedule.
To deal with these symptoms, they might have to:
- Use the bathroom often throughout the day
- Sit close to the bathroom or door
- Carry a water bottle to avoid dehydration
- Eat small snacks frequently
- Go to the school nurse for medicine or medical attention
- Bring a change of clothes in case they have an accident
They might also feel tired often and need extra time for classwork and homework. If your child’s UC flares up or they have routine doctor’s appointments to get to, they may need to miss school or come in late.
How Can Parents Help Children With UC at School?
Every child with UC has different needs. But with proper planning, management, and collaboration with staff, you can help remove or reduce some of the barriers your child may face at school.
Here are some steps you can take to help your child deal with UC at school:
Talk to your child about their concerns. First, ask your kid what concerns or worries they have about going to school with UC symptoms. This can help you figure out what specific issues or symptoms you need to tackle or who you need to talk to to ease your child’s quality of life and performance at school.
Establish a 504 plan. If your child goes to a school that gets federal funding such as a public school, there’s a law, called Section 504, designed to accommodate your child’s specific needs. The law, which falls under the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, allows parents with kids with physical disabilities or special needs to work with educators to come up with a customized education plan.
Depending on how UC affects your child’s performance at school, you can negotiate specific accommodations that work for your child. Once you’ve figured out your child’s specific needs, put it in writing in a 504 plan. This will go into effect for the entire school year. It can be reviewed and renewed annually as their needs may change as they grow up.
For example, accommodations you can include under a 504 plan are:
- “Stop the clock” for testing. This means the clock will stop during a test if your child needs a bathroom break. The clock will start once they return. This way they don’t lose any test-taking time.
- Flexibility around schoolwork such as take-home or make-up work or tests. This is especially important if your kid is too ill or needs hospitalization because of a UC flare-up.
- A hall pass to use the bathroom whenever your child needs to. This can include not having to ask for permission.
- Arrangement to use a private bathroom that may be in the nurse’s office.
- An at-home tutor if your child needs to skip school for long periods of time.
- A plan for late arrivals, skipping class, or excused absences.
If you’re unsure about what requests you need to make for the section 504 plan, talk with your child’s doctor about it.
Talk to the teachers and school staff. Not everyone your kid interacts with needs to know about your child’s UC diagnosis. But it’s important to let a select few who have the power to make decisions know what’s going on with your child at school.
- The school’s principal
- School nurse
- School counselor
- Aids or support staff
These people will know when and how to step in if your kid needs help. When you sit down to discuss your child’s UC symptoms, your talking points should include:
- Why it’s important to have access to the toilet at all times. This can help prevent unnecessary accidents or humiliation from classmates.
- How to help your child take medication during school hours without drawing too much attention.
- Help with pain management.
- How UC can affect your child’s physical, mental, and emotional behavior.
Teach your kid a private hand signal they can use to let teachers know they need to use the toilet. This can help them avoid disrupting the class.
You can also provide teachers and other staff members with emergency contacts such as your child’s doctor, guardians, close friends, or relatives they can turn to in case they need help or support.
Prepare an emergency kit. UC symptoms like diarrhea or an urgent need to poop might cause your child to have accidents at school. This could be embarrassing or stressful to handle. Being prepared for it can help offset some of the difficult situations. Pack your child an emergency bag with:
- An extra set of clothes that can fit in the locker or in the nurse’s office
- An air freshener that’s easy to carry if they need to use it
- Wet wipes
- Hand sanitizer
- Large freezer or garbage bags to store soiled clothes
- Clean underwear
- Gloves to handle soiled clothes
- Toilet paper
Pack healthy snacks to eat. For children with UC, it’s often hard to finish a meal in one sitting as it can cause cramping and bloating. To make up for the daily calories, your child might need to eat several small meals a day. Pack easy-to-digest healthy snacks that your child can munch on throughout the day. Make sure to let their teacher know why they need to eat outside of lunch break hours.
Send water bottles. Ongoing diarrhea can cause severe dehydration. To avoid this, give your kid a water bottle they can sip water from throughout the day.
Educate your child on how to manage their diet at school. There’s no special diet for UC. But how your child eats and how their body absorbs nutrition plays a large role in UC management. Greasy, fatty foods can upset your intestines and trigger a flare-up. To avoid this, educate your child about healthy food options and things they should try to avoid at the school cafeteria, such as:
- Fried foods
- Soda and other sugary drinks
- Processed foods and meats like hotdogs and sausages
- Refined carbohydrates like white bread, pasta, or pizza
Keep their meals simple. When in doubt, stick to boiling, steaming, poaching, or grilling fresh foods, meats, and vegetables.
Talk to a mental health specialist. For children going to school with UC, no matter their age, it’s common to find some of the UC symptoms embarrassing or difficult to cope with. This is especially true if their classmates tease them about frequent bathroom breaks or peer pressure about food choices. UC can also affect your growth, slow down puberty, and cause skin rashes.
This can take a toll on their mental and emotional health, self-confidence, and well-being. As a result, they may have several emotional responses, such as:
- Anxiety or depression
- Frustration with flares
- Feeling different from others
- Stress about going to school
- Anger or sadness as to why it’s happening to them
- Worry about how they look
- Trouble keeping up with healthy friends
- Blaming themselves for having UC
If you notice such behavior, let your child’s teacher know what might be causing it. Encourage your child to talk to the school guidance counselor or seek help from a mental health specialist such as a licensed psychologist about whatever is bothering them. They can suggest appropriate coping strategies that suit your kid’s age group.
Some stress-reducing techniques can include:
- Meditation and mindfulness
- Reading a book
- Listening to podcasts
Confiding in close, trusted friends can also help. You can also help your kid connect with other children of the same age who live with UC or join support groups outside the school. This can help build community and make them feel less isolated.
What Can Schools Do to Help Children With UC?
There are some things your child’s school can also do to help your kid succeed at school.
Schools can have a plan in place to:
- Handle your child’s prescription drugs to manage their condition in school
- Train staff to respond to emergencies
- Handle frequent bathroom break requests without drawing much attention
- Have details of the child’s health plans
- Have a plan in place in case of a health emergency
- Arrange aid or medical support for your child during school trips or sports