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Firefly's impact on the 'Back on Track' Program at Sydney Children’s Hospital


Young people who are diagnosed with cancer not only face the challenge of undergoing life-saving treatment – they must also overcome the negative impacts of extended school absence. Firefly has been working with the Back on Track program at Sydney Children’s Hospital to support the education of young people with cancer on their journey back to wellness.

Dr Marianne Fernandes is in her 11th year as an Education Program Coordinator for the Back on Track program, which provides a crucial bridge between the hospital, school, young person and family. ‘Undergoing cancer treatment impacts all aspects of being — learning included,’ Marianne explained.

With treatment often spanning months or even years, Back on Track has a strong focus on empowering young people to successfully navigate their education while maintaining social connectedness.

Firefly caught up with Marianne to talk about the challenges and rewards over recent years, as well as her favourite Firefly resources.

Supporting isolated students

Since COVID, one of Marianne’s greatest challenges has been overcoming the limited support and learning environment often provided to isolated students. ‘Many schools have found it extremely difficult to cater to the learning needs of the solitary student who is away — automatically directing them to preset online resources that are most often completely unrelated with what is going on in their own class,’ Marianne said. ‘While these resources are great, nothing compares with being a part of the classroom and the conversations, even if it’s only virtually.’

Despite these challenges, Marianne found positives in the unexpected. ‘My highlight of 2021 and 2022 was supporting all those young people who were isolated due to their immunosuppression and the fear of COVID in the community to keep up with their learning,’ Marianne explained.

Personalising lesson plans

Lesson planning proves to be even more important for teachers educating in such special circumstances. Some factors for teachers to consider during the planning process include:

  • realising that while there is a need to maintain normalcy, it might not look like what it did prior to illness
  • understanding the specific needs of the student and the family
  • considering the best time and place for engagement, whether it be hospital or home
  • prioritising social connections
  • providing opportunities for success, to review past learning, to showcase strengths and to engage with what the student’s peers are learning
  • setting achievable outcomes with the student and their family based on an understanding of the direct and indirect effects of specific treatments
  • providing opportunities to access learning and resources anytime from anywhere
  • ensuring the student is directing the frequency of lessons
  • empowering peers to become study buddies
  • ensuring that keeping the student on track isn’t burdensome for parents
  • providing additional support as required.
Encouraging motivation in students

Keeping students motivated can be challenging in any classroom. Marianne shared some of her secrets to success. She sparks motivation ‘through regular communication and with a lot of encouragement, assuring students that once treatment is completed, things will settle,’ she said. ‘We provide opportunities for engagement, and we encourage students to stay connected with school through regular visits and chats with teachers and friends.’

Marianne also motivates through ‘supported teaching and learning and the provision of resources like Sound Waves and English Stars.’

Firefly resources supporting teachers

Marianne loves not only the content and structure of Firefly programs, but also the support they provide to parents. ‘Personally, I’ve really appreciated English Stars and have used it a lot over 2022 and 2023 to help with literacy — a real struggle for many! iMaths is also great and very structured, allowing for a parent to assist while at home or for the young person to attempt tasks independently once explicit teaching has taken place,’ Marianne explained.

‘My other favourite is Sound Waves, especially for the little ones in K–2. Sound Waves is exceptional for teaching foundational concepts of language,’ Marianne said.

The impact of Firefly programs

Marianne described Firefly resources as ‘perfect for our kids, as it meets them where they’re at and affords us the opportunity to work in bite-sized chunks that are measured and progressive.’

Without programs like Firefly’s, Marianne said young people with cancer would become ‘disconnected, distanced, discouraged and give up on their dreams. They lose hope when they believe there is no future, and that impacts greatly on their ability to push through and recover. Families are already struggling under the weight of their child’s diagnosis and treatment. Without these sorts of programs, they’d break.’ Marianne continues to be an integral part of young people’s lives and educational journeys at Sydney Children’s Hospital. Supporting Back on Track over the past seven years has been an honour, and Firefly Education looks forward to continuing to support this wonderful program for years to come.

Want to help out?

 If you’re looking for ways to support Back on Track, you can: