Early life lessons
2 July 2019
Support for a child with a serious illness can be a valuable learning experience for everyone involved.
Early childhood teachers are adept at handling the bumps and bruises that come with the territory. Somewhat more challenging though is knowing how to respond to a child’s life-threatening illness in a way that involves siblings, parents and other students.
It’s a situation that Dianne O’Dwyer, an early childhood teacher in Victoria, faced after almost four decades in the sector, and reinforced her passionate advocacy of the importance of early childhood education.
“One of my four-year-olds, Lily (name changed), told me her young brother, Liam (name changed), was going into hospital ‘to have his hand cut off’.”
O’Dwyer was shocked, but assumed Lily was exaggerating. Nonetheless she reassured Lily that the doctors and nurses would look after Liam.
“I asked Lily’s mum what was going on and she explained that a lump on Liam’s hand had been diagnosed as an aggressive cancer, and he would be having surgery in two days to have part of his hand removed.”
O’Dwyer wanted to help make the journey easier for Liam and his family, so she kept a special eye on Lily, knowing siblings of sick children need extra care. Her first step was to put together a kit with books for children about hospital procedures, some medical equipment (syringes, gowns and bandages), and a teddy to be Liam’s patient’.
Liam had been expected to start with the three-year-old group that term, but his treatment and recovery meant he missed that year. Meanwhile, Lily returned to school two days after Liam’s operation. The teachers set up a “hospital” for her to play in “where she could make sense of what was going on around her and have opportunities to discuss any concerns she had”, says O’Dwyer.
When Liam returned the following year, he was sensitive about losing two of his fingers and kept his hand hidden under his sleeve.
Keen to build Liam’s confidence, O’Dwyer introduced him to a friend of hers who had been born with a short arm and three fingers and become a talented sportsman. She planned ball games and activities that developed hand strength and, one day while squeezing dough, a fellow classmate named David (name changed) showed Liam that he could squeeze just as well with his three-fingered hand.
“At that moment, Liam turned a corner,” says O’Dwyer. “David’s acceptance helped him accept himself, and he never looked back after that. He gained confidence and was able to start school with his peers, ready to learn.”
It’s just one story of many in a long career for O’Dwyer but, she says, it’s an example of how early childhood education makes a difference.
“I’m currently working with 22 children. Some need help to self-regulate their emotions, to develop their motor skills, to express themselves verbally, to learn how to use art materials, and to listen and to respond to instructions. We work together to develop these skills and to help them learn about the world around them.”
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This article originally appeared in the Australian Educator Winter 2019.