8 Tips for Managing Schoolwork If You're Chronically Ill
Just recently I wrote about how I went through my last years of high school learning everything myself at home as I was unable to go to school due to chronic illness, and how I graduated high school with straight As at last and got accepted to a few universities, one of which is soon to become the university I go to. As the time of going back to school is coming closer, I thought I’d share some tips for students with a chronic illness that I personally found useful throughout high school.
Most of the tips are based on knowing yourself (your studying habits, what learning style suits you the best, etc.) and knowing the limitations your illness may bring. If you are not sure about these things, there’s nothing wrong with that! You can take time to figure it out; you can also do tests on the internet to figure out your learning style, etc. It took me a long time to learn to study with my chronic illness and these tips are something I would hope could shorten the process for some others that might need it, as I was figuring everything out by myself. You definitely don’t have to have everything figured out though – I will mention this many times, but always remember it’s OK to take your time.
Please keep in mind that all the tips are from my own experience. Since I couldn’t go to school and had to give up all my hobbies, I spent most of the time studying by myself at home or in the hospital during these past two years. I made studying one of my priorities and your situation might be completely different, so read my tips with that in mind and take what you find reasonable and suitable from them!
1. It’s OK to customise your goals.
Maybe you just found yourself diagnosed, maybe it’s not a new thing for you at all, maybe your symptoms changed, maybe not at all… whatever the case is, chronic illnesses often limit us in our lives. It took me a very long time to accept I wouldn’t go back to school and wouldn’t be there with the others any more. It took me a long time to accept I might not achieve all my goals and go to the university I dreamed of, and it took me a long time to understand it is alright to customize my goals based on what I am able to do.
There’s nothing wrong with sitting down and writing down your goals and what you want to achieve, and if you feel like it, change it to fit what you think you are capable of. I was not expected to even finish high school and if so, to do it with bad grades and not on time with the others in my class. But I set my goal to finishing high school on time (which was something that was sort of a sure thing before, because there was never a reason to think otherwise) and that goal I achieved, even though it hadn’t been easy.
2. Know your learning style, your strengths and adapt your studying habits.
I’d say one of the most important things for students in general is to know their learning styles – and that applies to chronically ill students as well. If you do not know your learning style, you can find some tests on the internet! It’s always been easier for me to learn through hearing things, but with my pain I often find myself unable to handle any noise at all, so I had to develop different study habits that would suit me. Sometimes I’d find my own voice bearable when I couldn’t bear any other sound and so reading my notes out loud, reading articles out loud, etc. could take the place of teachers’ speeches, educational videos and other means of education.
I also found that writing everything down in my own words – as if I were saying them – was very helpful. On the contrary, for some it might be easier to watch videos, or maybe you’ll find that drawing things, doodling in your notes, making flashcards, writing your notes on your computer, printing them out and highlighting them (or anything else) will be more useful for you. Remember we are all different, so different things will work for everybody and it might take time to figure them out, so be patient with yourself. Try not to compare yourself with the others so much; instead, focus on yourself and your results.
3. Know what works for you with your chronic illness.
This goes along with the previous tip a lot but I wanted to put some emphasis on it. Years ago I used to like studying in the evenings. Starting to study at 4:00 p.m. was no issue for me. When my symptoms became worse and I stopped going to school, I gradually found I got tired very early and there was no way for me to study in the evening or at night as many of my friends do. Even studying in the afternoon was very difficult.
On the contrary, I found if I woke up early and set a schedule for myself I would stick with and started studying in the early morning, that would somehow work for me until the pain got more intense and I grew more tired and was eventually unable to concentrate at all. Maybe this might be your case, or maybe mornings are worse for you and you handle pain better in the afternoon, but same as with learning style, I found it important to realize this and adapt my study habits to this knowledge. It might also revolve around your medication and if something makes you unable to concentrate for a while, etc. It’s definitely a complex thing.
4. Plan ahead.
I can’t stress this tip enough. Get a planner, a nice little notebook, sheet of paper, post-it notes, anything that works for you and write down what you have to do. Mark important dates, mark due dates and learn to do it as soon as you get them – mark them in your calendar, in your phone or diary but do it as soon as possible even though they might change later.
Plan ahead topics to study each day. Make a homework and study schedule for yourself. It’s much easier to stick with something and get something done if you actually plan it. Also remember that big tasks are made of smaller steps so you can break it down and plan the smaller steps ahead instead. In my case, I lacked a school schedule and had to just make one for myself. I would write down a schedule for every week, time I’d like to spend on each topic, and would mark things as done with a satisfied little feeling in my chest.
There are many ways to plan ahead too! I made a bullet journal where I could also track my habits, make a medication tracker (which is especially good as phone screen is sometimes too bright for me to handle and applications on my phone are harder to manage because of it) and pain tracker apart from other things like mood tracker. I had a page for each day where I saw things to do, pain levels and things I’d actually managed to complete.
5. Count on the possibility of worse days coming.
As it is with a chronic illness, you usually never know when bad days will come. Counting on the possibility of them coming is, of course, easier said than done, but it was important for me to keep in mind that there will be days I won’t be able to get out of bed and won’t get anything done. And during those days of high pain levels, studying really isn’t very effective and all it does is make you feel worse if you force yourself to do it. It’s important to remember these moments can come, so stay one step ahead of yourself. If you can do that extra work, do it. If you can do something ahead of time, do it, so if the time comes and you find yourself unable to study, you won’t be as stressed about it.
Here, you have to keep in mind that a step ahead of yourself looks different for everyone as well, so choose what length of step you find reasonable. Either way, this made it possible for me to make it through the year.
6. Maintain good working relationships with your teachers.
That’s also often difficult, as I personally dealt with some teachers who made ableist remarks, and communication often makes me terribly anxious, both in person and through e-mails, but I found it incredibly important. If you communicate with your teachers, ask them questions, keep up with your dates and they know you are making an effort, it makes everything much easier. I, for example, only went to school to do tests and maybe for some consultations. It was good to come prepared, have some questions ready and show the teacher I cared. It really made a difference for me as they were much more open to helping me than if I had been careless.
7. When it comes to notes…
Do whatever sits well with you. I’d say it’s useful to take detailed notes, highlight important parts, use different colors to differentiate formulas, theories and other things, use different colors when writing by hand (and bright colors might be helpful if studying with brain fog as well as a larger font!). Reread your notes before classes and tests, reread the entire thing and then come back to your highlighted parts. You can make flashcards to bring with yourself and go through before the class, in the transport or anywhere!
8. Be patient with yourself, take your time and don’t be afraid to reach out for help.
I’ve mentioned this previously, but each of us is different. We are capable of different things and we all reach our goals at different paces. Please remember there’s no shame in taking your time if you need it and there’s no shame in needing help. Asking your teachers or friends for help with studying is nothing to be ashamed of. You might find that study groups are actually your cup of tea, or maybe ask your family members to help you study by asking you questions from your notes or going through them with you.
But also seek help if you are struggling with your mental health or anything else at all. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help – to your doctors, to your teachers or advisor, to hotlines, to your friends – anyone you feel comfortable reaching out to. I had to learn not to beat myself up about having to spend more time on studying each topic than my friends would need, because that’s how it is for me, but at last I know I am trying my best and that’s what’s important.
After I was diagnosed, I suddenly felt isolated, I felt lost, I was frequently depressed and developed some suicidal thoughts and it took me way too long to even mention and admit my mental health issues to someone. At the time I might have needed someone to tell me it’s OK to reach out for help, so I am telling you.
In conclusion, don’t push yourself too hard, take time to find your own ways and know your priorities. Remember that you and your health still come first and there’s no shame in that. Prioritize your assignments, be gentle with yourself, break down big tasks and plan ahead. Use outside sources and your strengths. Don’t compare yourself to the others – focus on yourself and your results instead. Take time to rest and take time for yourself. After all, studying is not the only thing you should focus on.
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