As part of our month of activities to support the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Jennifer Reid, Author of ‘Mrs T’s Kooky Pants’ will be visiting each Greenwood location to read to the older Preschoolers. Jennifer is also a Breast Cancer Ambassador and President of The Children’s Book Council Sydney West Sub-branch and her wonderful book combines both of these roles to sensitively introduce the topic of cancer for children, encouraging positive and informative discussion.
The Greenwood Reporter interviewed Jennifer in preparation for her visit to give Parents some helpful insights and practical tips to approach this topic with their children…
We’ve really enjoyed your book ‘Mrs T’s Kooky Pants’ and are impressed by how sensitively it introduces the topic of cancer for children. What led you to create the character of Mrs T?
Mrs T’s Kooky Pants was inspired by my battle with breast cancer at a time when my children were very young. It is a story that is also inspired by my experience of losing a loved one to cancer. I felt compelled to share these raw experiences as it is my hope that Mrs T’s Kooky Pants becomes a useful tool for parents and teachers, to gently open up the difficult conversations about topics such as cancer, death and grief. It will hopefully give kids strategies to help them move on after loss and help them deal with their grief in a positive way.
This can be a difficult topic to discuss. From your experience do you have any helpful tips for parents when talking about cancer with their children?
I find it really helpful to talk about loved ones I’ve lost and remember the fun times we shared or revisit places we went together so I can feel close to them. This is the type of thing that is modelled in my book.
It is a story that tells kids it’s okay to be sad when you lose someone you love, but it’s important to try to be happy again some day. “Every day is a new day and a chance to start again,” is one piece of advice Mrs T gives her students.
When I was going through difficult cancer treatment I tried to be as honest as possible with my children. I’ve always believed that such things should not be swept under the carpet, even with children. In fact, children are so resilient and can handle the truth if it’s shared in a loving and supportive way.
I encouraged my family to just do one day at a time and not look too far ahead because that can be scary. We appreciated each new day we had together. We wanted to enjoy all the precious moments and focus on the positives and we still try to live our lives this way 5 years on.
My children were 11 and 12 years of age at the time of my cancer diagnosis. They were amazing for their age… even though I had a lot of complications and it was a struggle for all of us, once they saw I was going to be positive, we were able to get through it together.
My husband sent me a beautiful quote the other day that reminded me of an important truth, “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive– to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”
My passion is to help children, and people in general, to see that life is full of challenges that are often out of our control but we can find hope, or the rainbow after the storm, if we choose to do so.
So even though Mrs T’s Kooky Pants deals with the pain and fears that come about when having to face cancer and death, the message is still hopeful and encouraging. I want every child who has or is facing these things to read and talk about Mrs T’s Kooky Pants or their own story to bring their feelings out into the open so that there’s care, support and understanding for them.
In summary, some important points:
- Answer any questions as honestly as possible. If you don’t know the answer, tell the child that you can find out for them and get back to them, or find out together.
- Following communication about cancer, ask child what concerns they might have and support them by talking it through. They may even want to speak to another trusted adult, such as a doctor, school nurse, counselor, teacher or cancer support specialist such as:
Greenwood CEO Carol Tannous-Sleiman and Jennifer at the book launch of ‘Mr T’s Kooky Pants’
The character Jayda, one of Mrs T’s students, notices some differences in her teacher before her Mum tells her about Mrs T’s illness. Do you have any advice for parents as to how to explain the changes that may occur when someone they know has cancer?
Explain that this is an operation and the doctor/surgeon will:
- Cut out the cancer, or
- Remove the part of the body where the cancer is
Before your children visit you in hospital, prepare them for how you’ll be after the operation. For example, if you’ll have drips or tubes, tell them what they’re for and explain that you’ll only have them for a short time to help you get better.
If children want to look at a scar, it’s usually fine to let them see it, but it may be best to wait until the swelling and redness settle down. If they’re not interested or seem reluctant to look, don’t push them.
Explain to them that chemotherapy is:
- Special medicine that destroys the cancer, or
- Special medicine that stops or slows down the growth of cancer cells
It’s also helpful to tell children how the chemotherapy may change your routine and how it may make you feel. Let them know that:
- Chemotherapy can sometimes make you feel sick, but that you’ll take other medicine to stop the sickness
- Chemotherapy can make you feel very tired, so you’ll usually need to get lots of rest or sleep after having it
- Your hair may fall out, and if it does, you’ll be able to wear a wig, bandana or hat – you can reassure them that your hair will grow back again after the chemotherapy finishes
- Germs don’t cause cancer but chemotherapy can make it easier for you to catch a cold or infection
Explain to them that radiotherapy is:
- The use of x-rays or a laser beam to destroy the cancer
- Given to the part of the body where the cancer is to destroy the cancer cells so they can’t grow.
Depending on where you’re having the radiotherapy, you can explain that:
- It can make the skin in the area being treated a bit red and sore
- It makes you feel very tired, even after it’s finished, so you’ll need to rest a lot.
Children need to know that side effects will usually go away when your treatment is finished, but that this is often gradual. They should also know that side effects don’t mean you’re getting sicker and that not everyone gets the same side effects. Some children may worry that the cancer is getting worse if they see you unwell, or they may think that the treatment isn’t working if you don’t get side effects.
Tell your children that treatment can be hard and it’s normal for you to feel down or frustrated at times, but it’s not because of anything they’ve done. Help them feel involved by asking them to get you a drink or to do little things to help around the house.
Changes in physical appearance – Children usually cope and adjust well if they’re told about any changes in your appearance in advance. Younger children, particularly those under 10 years old, struggle most with this. Letting them know in a matter-of-fact way is often the easiest way to explain things. Older children may feel embarrassed and want to avoid talking about it. If you’re struggling to cope with it yourself, you may prefer someone else to explain it to them or to get further help.
Your children may expect things to get back to normal and find it difficult to understand why that’s not always simple.
You’ll probably feel very tired and may still be coping with side effects. It’s also not uncommon to feel anxious and isolated, and to miss the support you had during treatment. This is normal and it takes time for everyone to adjust to life after treatment.
It’s a good idea to prepare your children for the fact that it’s going to take time, possibly months, to get your energy back. Be positive about the things you can do now treatment is over. Tell them about new changes to family life and routines – for example, if you’ll be picking them up from school or if you won’t be going back to work for a few months.
Tell them that you’re still getting support from the hospital, from a support group or online. Get them involved in things you’re doing to help your recovery, such as:
- Taking some exercise like short walks to help to build up your energy levels
- Eating well – tell them about foods that are healthy to eat and encourage them to try them
- Making sure you all get enough sleep – explain how important this is for your recovery and for their growth
- Asking them to carry on helping around the house
Keep being open with your children. Let them know you’re still there to listen to them and that they can talk to you about their worries. They may be worrying about you staying well, and younger children will probably still be clingy. Explain that you’ll be going to the hospital for check-ups to make sure you’re well. They’ll need to know that you can still get everyday illnesses like colds, but that this doesn’t mean the cancer has come back.
Acknowledge that you’ve all been through something difficult together and how they’ve helped you to get better. This can be particularly important for teenagers. Things usually gradually get back to normal as everyday life takes over from the cancer.
Despite all the difficulties, cancer may bring some positive things to your family life. Being open and honest with your children can make you feel closer. You can feel proud of how your children have learned to cope when life doesn’t go to plan. And don’t be afraid to say how proud you are of them. They may be more responsible, independent and more sensitive to other people’s needs in the future.
What are some ways that Parents and children can remember a loved one and “try to feel happy again some day”?
- Talk to someone you trust about the way you are feeling, or some things you remember about your loved one. Just talking about it can sometimes make you feel better
- Remember – good memories can make you feel grateful and positive
- Share – listening to others talking about their memories of your loved one can also be very helpful
- Art Therapy – paint or draw your feelings, all the things you loved about the person, or whatever else you wish. ‘Creating’ can be very therapeutic
- Music Therapy – listening to music, or playing a musical instrument, can be calming
- Writing – keeping a journal, writing stories or poetry can be useful. You could get someone to help you
- Exercise – go for a run or walk, or play a team sport. You could even participate in a fun run to raise funds for a cancer charity and get your school, family or friends involved
- Watch your favourite movie or read a book
- Gardening – you could plant a special flower or tree especially in memory of your loved one
- Live your life – After a while, you will become aware that life is still going on around you. Your sadness will slowly get less and less. You will never forget the person you lost, but you will put their memory in the back of your mind. Like photos in a photo album, you will bring out your memories of your lost loved one every now and then. Good memories of fun times you had together, on holidays, playing in the backyard, making cupcakes together, etc. That person was an important part of your life, but they weren’t the only part. They would want you to get back to the other parts of your life and get on with living your life. Going to school and after school activities, hanging out with friends and doing the things you normally do, will help you move forward in your life again
We’ve also heard that you are the President of The Children’s Book Council of Australia – Sydney West Sub-branch. What can parents to do encourage early literacy development in their child and foster a life-long love of books?
Having a wide variety of books and writing materials available is vital. eg. nursery rhyme books, ABC books, informational books and other picture storybooks.
You can look for bargain children’s books at used bookstores and yard sales, or purchase books at great prices through monthly book clubs offered through child care centres or schools.
You can visit your local library to borrow books, read books at the library and even attend Story time events.
Have a number of types of letters that your child can move around. Alphabet blocks, foam letters for the bathtub, ABC puzzles, magnetic refrigerator letters, ABC cookie cutters, letter stamps and letter stickers are all ideal materials for young children.
Thick markers, paint brushes, pencils and crayons are ideal for the youngest writers since they are still developing the small muscles in their hands that help them hold tools. Likewise, large paper is best for young children.
Having a model of all the letters available for learning writers allows them to refer to the correct letter formations.
Reading and Writing Materials for Parents
When children see the adults around them using reading and writing in their everyday lives, they’re more likely to become readers and writers themselves. Simply having a bookshelf full of books, reading the local newspaper, and having a notepad on which you write grocery lists and phone messages shows your child that reading and writing serve valuable everyday purposes.
Props for Pretend Play
Props such as dress-up clothes and play dishes encourage your young child or kindergartner to pretend, which actually contributes to literacy skills. Make props for pretend play from materials you already have at home. Empty cereal boxes, mum’s old necklaces and an old pot and wooden spoon make ideal items for countless make-believe scenarios.
Books and children’s music on CDs are another way for your child to enjoy stories and music. Most libraries have extensive collections of audio books and children’s music CDs to borrow. Or you can download them onto your iPhone/iPad.
Videos can help your young child learn basic concepts and information. They are also another way to expose your child to quality children’s literature. Eg. concept videos such as ABCs or rhyming are appropriate, videos of familiar books.
In summary, what you can do…
- Organise a bookshelf for your child’s collection. A sturdy bookshelf located in an area accessible to your child is ideal. They can reach books and use them without asking your permission. Having a special place for your child’s books will demonstrate to them that books are valuable
- Set up a writing area for your child. Having all materials in one accessible spot will encourage your young child to write. Having a special writing box or even a writing table or desk will help your child to see writing as an important activity
- Talk together about things that interest your child.Ask genuine questions, ones to which you do not already know the answer. Ask questions that help children think about why and how and not just what. When you talk, be sure to listen to your child’s response and build upon what they have to say
- Introduce new vocabulary words when you talk with your child. When you use a new word, make sure to explain its meaning to your child and encourage them to ask when they do not know the meaning of a word
- Continue your daily read-aloud routine.Continue the routine that you established earlier in your child’s life. Reading at the same time each day and in the same comfortable place, such as in bed or on the couch, make read-aloud a time to anticipate
- Point to the words when you read aloud.You need not do this for every page but pointing to the words in the book’s title, or to the words of a repeated phrase in a picture book, is a good idea. When you point to the words, you show your child that there is a correspondence between spoken and written words and that print goes from left to right
- Listen to your child “read.”By the end of kindergarten, most children will be able to “read” some very easy books aloud by relying mostly on the pictures and their memory of the story. Make sure to set aside some of your read-aloud time to listen to your child read as soon as he is ready. Avoid pushing your child to do this until he shows interest
- Literacy Outings – Visit your local library, bookmobile or bookstore to find new read-aloud ideas for your child. Many libraries feature free song and story hours, author visits and other free events that young children may enjoy
- Be a reader and writer yourself.One of the most effective ways to help children become readers and writers is to show them through your own example that you value literacy and that reading and writing have useful purposes. Make sure that you have a variety of printed and writing materials in your house that you use on a regular basis and that you talk to your child about what you are doing when you read and write
At Greenwood, we place a high value on the important work that our team of Educators do. The imaginative adventures that Mrs T takes her class on sound wonderful! What do you think is the most important thing our Educators can pass on to the children in their care? And as an Educator yourself, what kind of legacy do you hope to leave for future generations?
I believe as Educators we need to model literacy to children and inspire not only a love of literature but a passion for life.
Our actions need to be full of kindness and energy, capturing the essential qualities of what teaching is all about – helping kids become positive and caring so that they thrive in life and are equipped to cope with personal snags along the way.
I also believe that as humans, we should never stop dreaming! So I love to teach my own children and my students that it’s okay to have hopes and dreams. In fact, what would life be without them?!
Jennifer will be visiting Greenwood Centres on Monday 20th October – Parents of Greenwood children are more than welcome to attend one of her book reading sessions, please see your Centre Leader for more information and times.
To purchase your own copy of ‘Mrs T’s Kooky Pants’ visit the eTV publishing website to order your copy online. $1 from every book sold goes to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
Jennifer has also prepared some notes for teachers that can be downloaded from the eTV website here.