Johns Hopkins experts offer suggestions to address online learning challenges for children with cancer

Thousands of schools switched to online learning in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when many children with cancer and other chronic health needs, as well as those with special educational needs, faced significant challenges in learning online. An opinion piece by Johns Hopkins experts, published Jan. 4 in the journal JAMA Pediatricshighlights some of the issues faced by families and offers suggestions for moving forward.

Children undergoing cancer treatment may experience symptoms such as fatigue, pain, motor impairments or vision/hearing loss that make learning more difficult, says co-author Kathy Ruble, Ph.D., MSN, RN, CRNP, Director of Clinical Pediatric Oncology Survival at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center and Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and School of Nursing. In addition, therapy frequently induces deficits in attention, executive functions, processing speed, behavior regulation, and overall IQ.

Although clinicians in pediatric oncology or other subspecialties spend the most time with families, they are often the least equipped to handle these kinds of issues, Ruble says.

If someone has difficulty walking, we have no problem sending them to physiotherapy. But if someone can’t hold their pen or use their fine motor skills to use the computer, we’re much less likely to notice it during a clinic visit and send them to occupational therapy. There are many departments within the healthcare system that can help with disabilities acquired through illness or treatment that I think we underutilize because we don’t think about it enough. »

Kathy Ruble, Ph.D., MSN, RN, CRNP, Director of the Pediatric Oncology Survival Clinic, Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center and Associate Professor, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and School of Nursing

Patients and family caregivers should raise their concerns with every clinician they meet and ask for help, she advises. Meanwhile, she says, during exams, clinicians should ask questions about school performance, look for signs and symptoms that might make learning difficult, and find out what resources are available within their institutions or communities. Pediatric neuropsychology teams, social workers, and disease-specific organizations may also be helpful.

Additionally, Ruble and his team have developed a continuing medical education course to help oncology healthcare providers address the challenges associated with the neurocognitive impacts of therapy. It is available as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), free online courses open to anyone, on the Coursera Kids with Cancer Still Need School: The Providers Role platform.


Journal reference:

Thorton, CP, et al. (2022) Education of children with chronic conditions advances in online and virtual learning. JAMA Pediatrics.

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