24/07/2017
Dr Joanna Fardell has quite a lengthy job title. She’s Deputy Program Leader, Behavioural Sciences Unit, Kids Cancer Centre at Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick, and Postdoctoral Research Fellow for The Kids’ Cancer Project. Right now, Joanna’s on maternity leave taking care of her new baby girl. She took time out to update The Kids’ Cancer Project on her research project, Ready, Steady, School which is investigating how to give children living with cancer a positive school experience.

TKCP: Congratulations on the safe arrival of your baby! What’s her name?

JF: We named her Grace, it’s such a beautiful name. I was really touched that another Grace is featured on The Kids’ Cancer Project website – and that her story is all about a positive school experience.

TKCP: That is a remarkable coincidence! Tell, us, how did Ready, Steady, School come about?

JF: The project developed from research conducted by Alistair Lum. He’s one of our fantastic PhD students at Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick. Alistair conducted a large national survey with parents and children affected by cancer. He found that children with cancer who had supportive teachers and a supportive school environment were happier and more motivated than kids who weren’t given the same support.

TKCP: If that’s not happening widely, where does the problem lie?

JF: Professor Glenn Marshall, Head of Translational Research at Children’s Cancer Institute UNSW, and a senior oncologist in the Kids Cancer Centre at Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick is one of our chief investigators for Ready, Steady, School. In a recent interview, "Australia failing childhood cancer survivors at school",  he summed up the need really nicely. There’s a need for a structure where teachers, health professionals and families can come together to promote the educational needs and outcomes of children with cancer –that’s exactly the gap Ready, Steady, School is working to fill.

TKCP: Where to from here?

JF: We started having conversations with parents, health professionals and the education support team at the Kids Cancer Centre. Through these conversations we discovered that we could really help children with cancer, along with their families, by ensuring their school was engaged and informed. Like Grace’s story, supportive and understanding teachers were identified as the key for kids with cancer having positive school outcomes.

TKCP: So how are you approaching this as a research study?

JF: We need to understand what families and teachers really need to promote student engagement with school during and after cancer.

To do that we are using a mixed-methods approach. We’re interviewing families and children affected by cancer, health professionals and education professionals. Plus, we’re reviewing international research on school programs already developed for this purpose.

TKCP: What does that research tell you?

JF: Well, from those two sources we’ve been able to build an online resource (a website), for families and teachers to understand the school experiences of young people with cancer, and how they can help to promote their engagement with school throughout the cancer experience.

The next step is to use further surveys and interviews to evaluate the usefulness of the online resource in a pilot study.

TKCP: Sounds like you’re close! Where’s Ready, Steady, School up to now?

JF: Right now we’re finalising the website content together with the interviews. I’m getting very excited to start working with our web developers. In terms of progress, we’re moving ahead in three areas:

1. Our website content will provide comprehensive information and support for children, parents and teachers from the perspective of the hospital, school and family.

2. Our website platform will enable parents, students and education professionals to share information and resources. We’ve also developed a structured needs assessment to ensure parents, children and teachers are directed to tailored information, activities and practical resources according to the child’s needs.

3. Interviews held across Australia are helping us clearly identify the needs of young cancer survivors during transition back to school along with best-practice recommendations for educators.

TKCP: The Kids’ Cancer Project funding will support Ready, Steady, School up to June 2018. What do you hope to achieve by then?

JF: We’re hoping by June 2018 that the online resource will be finalised (and we will have completed preliminary evaluation) so that we can conduct a full trial at several hospitals around Australia. We already have health professionals and teams in Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales who are keen to help implement the online resource at their hospitals, and we are hoping to get support from the other major hospitals around Australia in the coming year.

TKCP: What are the biggest challenges to future success?

JF: One of the biggest ongoing challenges for the project is making sure that it remains current and useful for treating teams and education professionals around Australia. This means making sure the content is always up-to-date and the resources and activities we provide as part of the website are relevant to the needs of children who have had cancer and are entering or returning to school.

TKCP: So the project really has only just begun and ongoing funding is really needed?

JF: Extra funding will help ensure that Ready, Steady, School is “future proofed” for children and teachers, by allowing regular updates of content.

The Kids’ Cancer Project has provided really important funding for this project, which helped us develop the program. Soon we’ll evaluate it and share it nationally.
 
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