Are Chronically Ill Teens Missing the Hidden Curriculum?

Janice Crow

Every year thousands of chronically ill teens are missing school for long periods of time. Not only are they missing instructional time, but they are also missing lessons taught informally that other students pick up while they are at school. This “hidden curriculum” includes behaviors and attitudes which are deemed appropriate within the school culture. Students with a chronic illness might be relegated to watching the social culture of high school from the sidelines, just because they are not present often enough to keep up with the daily roller coaster lives of their friends. Missing school is not just a physical thing; it’s emotional and psychological too. Teens with a chronic illness often miss the everyday learning and social experiences that help them feel part of a group, improve self-esteem, and lay the foundation for building positive futures.

The unspoken culture of any individual school is unique to that school. In some high schools, the culture defines athletic success as the most important thing. In others, where peer cultures are dominant, popularity equals power. In some schools, academic effort and academic excellence are revered as the highest achievement.

A school’s culture, positive or negative, is constantly evolving as students learn to form their opinions and ideas about their environment and about their classmates. If a student is absent for a long period of time, or even intermittently on a consistent basis, he or she will no longer have knowledge of the latest changes to the “hidden curriculum,” nor even be aware of the subtle cues given among peers to communicate feelings or attitudes. Even the way messages are communicated may change during a student’s absence.

Individualized instruction can certainly help chronically ill teens catch up academically, but they will still be sitting on the bench socially, waiting for a signal from an accepted peer to have a chance to play. Adolescents benefit from the rich social experiences provided by being part of a group, including asking questions and working on a team.

Thankfully, there are ways parents and teachers can encourage teens with a chronic illness to stay connected socially. Access to Email, Facebook, Facetime, Instagram and Skype, can all provide opportunities for keeping students connected to peers, and these social media connections can make a young person feel “present” and a part of the culture even during long absences from school.

Of course, it is extremely important for teens to communicate with teachers concerning missed assignments and instructional time. However, it is just as crucial for chronically ill teens to maintain communication with a circle of friends on a consistent basis.

It is also important for teens with a chronic illness to attend school as often as possible, even if it is only for part of the day or one day a week. In addition, attendance at school events should be encouraged. Keeping up with a school’s traditions and rituals helps make teens feel they are not left out and it makes them feel a part of a larger community.

Even if teens are home schooled, many home school organizations offer opportunities for social engagement through field trips, art, music, and athletic competition.

Of course, the importance of keeping chronically ill teens connected with peers in high school is to encourage them to continue to build meaningful relationships and to move forward in all areas of life. We are all aware that teens need teens and just how powerful support from positive peers can be. As teens with a chronic illness continue their journey of transition from adolescence to adulthood and independence, they need all the communication skills available in order to keep up with the constantly changing social culture and thrive as young adults.