How can arthritis affect school life?
Many people think arthritis only affects the older generation. But 1 in every 1,000 young people in the UK has arthritis.
Arthritis in young people can be complex. Its severity varies from one person to another, and someone's symptoms can alter greatly from day to day. Read more about the symptoms and treatment of juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA).
A caring and friendly school environment, and staff with positive, understanding and compassionate attitudes, will make a big difference for a young person with arthritis. The key is a genuine ethos of inclusion so that a young person with arthritis has an equal opportunity to participate fully in school life and reach their potential.
When a young person has arthritis
Growing up with a long-term (chronic) illness can pose many physical, emotional and practical obstacles. It’s important to meet early on with your pupil and their parents/carers to find out:
- how the condition affects your pupil
- what they need to make sure they have a positive school experience and what school staff can do to help
- whether they want other pupils to know about their condition.
If a member of your pupil's rheumatology team can attend the meeting they can give you additional medical information and a professional perspective that could be important. The rheumatology team should work with your school to help you understand your pupil's medical condition and needs. Ideally this will include assessment and co-ordination by an occupational therapist, a physiotherapist or a rheumatology nurse specialist.
Your school will need to consider the practical implications of a young person’s arthritis and where necessary help out by making technical and practical alterations.
What practical support can I give?
Schools are legally obliged to provide equality of opportunity for all pupils. This means that schools must not discriminate against a pupil with a disability by giving them a level of teaching, support and access to facilities that would put them at a disadvantage to their peers.
Ensuring this doesn't happen may require the school to make some reasonable adjustments so pupils with arthritis can participate fully in school life.
Painful and stiff joints can make movements slower or more difficult. Ask your pupil sensitively if they’d like any modifications put in place.
They might be worried about being singled out for special treatment, so be careful to help practically as much as possible and without making them feel awkward or upset at unwanted attention, especially when they're starting at a new school or college.
Be flexible about your pupil arriving late or leaving early and allow extra time or help for moving between lessons. This is more of an issue in secondary schools and colleges, where lessons are often in different rooms.
Where possible, arrange for lessons to be in downstairs classrooms. If this isn't possible, let them use lifts where available. If necessary, give them a lift pass. Think about access for wheelchairs and crutches where necessary.
Give your pupil a ground-floor locker or let them leave textbooks in a secure place. If possible, give them two sets of books, one for school and one for home, so they don't have to carry them around.
Be flexible about uniform rules where there are specific needs, for example with footwear.
Give them a pass which explains any special provisions to avoid them having to repeatedly explain their needs or get in trouble. This could include, for example, a toilet pass, late pass, shoe pass, lift pass and inside break pass.
What emotional support can I give?
Growing up with a chronic illness and managing any limitations caused by arthritis can be tough and affect emotional well-being. Young people with arthritis will share the normal anxieties of their peers but may have additional concerns related to their condition and what might happen in the future.
The illness can affect the whole family and schools will need to be aware of the needs of siblings too. A Pastoral Support Plan (PSP) may be useful for some.
Making the most of playtime and breaks
Play and leisure time is an essential part of school life, to develop friendships and peer support. It also allows young people to let off steam and promote positive emotional well-being.
It’s important that young people with arthritis are encouraged and enabled to join in with their classmates during playtimes or breaks.
Exercise is good for arthritis and joining in will help your pupil to avoid feeling different. Sometimes, however, they may find running about or standing around in cold weather difficult, so you might occasionally let them and some of their friends play inside for some or all of break-time.
If it's possible, seats and sheltered areas of the playground would help your pupil and would probably be used by a lot of other children as well.