Missing Out: Kids with Chronic Illness Lose Out on Learning and More

By Arielle Haughee

Chronic illness can be particularly cruel, especially when it afflicts some of our most vulnerable population, children. According to the CDC, around 27% of children in the United States have a chronic condition, and 1 in 15 have multiple conditions. That’s over 4 million elementary students who have to live with chronic illness.

These children’s school experiences are impacted in a variety of ways, causing them to be behind academically, socially, emotionally, and with their behavior. Awareness of these issues can help bring about mitigation, making things a little easier for children with chronic conditions.

Academic Impacts

Some of the most documented effects of chronic illness and children are the academic impacts. Indeed, according to the National Library of Medicine, children with chronic conditions are “3.8 times more likely to have repeated a grade, 3.6 times more likely to have parent-reported academic challenges, and 4.9 times more likely to have recent illness-related school absenteeism than healthy students.”

Kids with Chronic Illness 1

Absenteeism is a major concern for these children, leaving them behind their peers in learning content. 1 out of 4 elementary school-aged children with chronic illness miss seven or more days of school.

When they are able to be in class, two out of three children with chronic conditions can have a hard time completing work due to “difficulty breathing or swallowing, blood circulation issues, and physical pain” (Better Health Channel). They can also have challenges processing information: nearly 3 out of 5 have difficulty learning, understanding, and paying attention.

All of these challenges combined make for decreased academic performance, leaving them significantly behind their peers.

Social Impacts

Children with chronic conditions are also struggling socially. They have a hard time developing and maintaining friendships. They stand out as being different, and frequent absences contribute to the wall between them and their peers. Parents of these children are “4.6 times more likely to report that their child had low social confidence” (National Library of Medicine). This makes the school experience unpleasant and decreases student engagement.

Emotional Impacts

Chronic illness can affect the way children see themselves, hurting their confidence, self-esteem, and body image. “Parents of students with chronic illness were 2.2 times more likely to report their child to have moderate-high emotional distress” (National Library of Medicine). Managing a condition, feeling different, and struggling in school all combine to make a perfect storm that rages against positive self-image.

Behavior Impacts

Kids with Chronic Illness 2

Students with chronic conditions can have trouble getting around the school environment and participating in some activities such as physical education or field trips. This, in conjunction with the other impacts they manage, can cause behavior issues for these students. “Indeed, 1 out of 2 of elementary school-aged children with chronic illness experience behavioral difficulties, including acting out, fighting, bullying, or arguing” (Project Pencil). They might express their frustrations with life through poor behavior, causing even more distractions in the learning environment.

Clearly, children with chronic conditions have a lot to manage in their lives when it comes to their education. Being aware of these struggles can help educators address their needs better. While we can’t take away their pain, we can give extra patience, time, and understanding to these children to help them be more successful in school.


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