NORTH PORT — Presley Scott walks into the kitchen limping, a brace covers her right leg.
The 6-year-old climbs onto a chair, sitting before a dark wooden table. She slides her math homework in front of her and reaches for a magenta pencil. Matching pink hearing aids rest inside her ears.
Her mother, Christine Scott, unravels a roll of Smarties. She lets the candies drop onto the table, next to the child’s small hands. She glances at the math worksheet before asking the little girl to count them.
“I did it, Mama,” Presley said.
Scott glimpses at the girl’s brace and hearing aids. They remind her that the child’s brain cancer could return.
Presley was diagnosed with anaplastic ependymoma when she was 2. She underwent radiation, chemotherapy and three brain surgeries to remove her softball-sized brain tumor.
In September, it’ll be three years since she finished treatment.
But the girl still has follow-up scans every six months — another startling reminder.
“I am so much more anxious,” Scott said. “I’ll cry for no reason because we could be doing fine and then all of a sudden I have to deal with it again and it’s almost scarier the second time around because now you know what you’re up against.”
FACING NEW CHALLENGES Presley, a kindergartner at Glenallen Elementary School in North Port, has developed learning problems after treatment. She will soon be evaluated for an individualized education plan, a document developed for students who need special education services, but her parents and school teacher have already started to help her overcome some of the issues that have arisen.
The chemotherapy drug, Cisplatin, has caused the girl’s hearing loss, her mother said. The child struggles to hear high-frequency sounds, like “f,” “s” and “th,” which makes learning new words more difficult.
Presley’s teacher, Nicole Schubiger, wears a microphone to transmit her voice to the child’s hearing aid.
Schubiger monitors Presley closely to make sure she keeps up with the daily lessons. But the girl, who is outgoing and witty, actively participates in class.
At the start of the school day, the “Good Morning Song” by The Kiboomers fills the classroom, prompting Presley to search the room for a dance partner. Her classmates search, too, choosing to dance with partners, in groups or by themselves.
The morning activity is Presley’s favorite part of the school day, her teacher notes.
“She plays with everyone,” Schubiger said. “There’s not one student in the classroom she’s not friendly with, and she’s the first to help someone out. If someone falls, she says, ‘Are you OK?’ ... She’s inspiring to be around. She just makes you want to be a better person.”
The girl returns home after school to start her reading homework. Her parents encourage her to write practice sentences on a separate sheet of paper before writing them on her worksheet. They sometimes have her repeat the exercise in the morning before she heads back to school.
Her mother hopes that getting her additional help in kindergarten will prevent her from falling behind in third grade, where students are required to pass a reading test to advance to fourth grade.
Scott said she was aware that Presley was at risk of developing learning issues after treatment.
“We were always told that there was a possibility of it,” Scott said. “In the end, the fact that she’s going to a regular school and doing the things that she’s doing, it’s better than we expected or most people expected. With the tumor that size and all she’s been through, we’ve seen so many families lose their kids. ... She’s still here, a lot of people can’t say that.”
‘REACH OUT TO THE TEACHER’ Stacie Stapleton, a pediatric neuro-oncologist at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, suggests parents get their children a tutor or an individualized education plan if they need additional help.
She said parents and teachers should also notify each other of the child’s learning problems.
“If the teachers identify something, they need to tell the family, ‘I see your child struggling, maybe you need to talk to your doctor or maybe we need to do testing at the school,’” Stapleton said. “And then the families, if they are noticing their child’s grades are falling off or they’re struggling at home, they need to reach out to the teacher.”
Kate Loguerico, a hospital teacher at All Children’s Hospital, stressed the importance of providing students with special accommodations, which supports them in the classroom and contributes to their academic success.
“If they need extended time for school work, if they need an extra set of textbooks at home or if they need to complete five problems instead of 20 to show mastery, it’s little things like that, that can make a difference for these children,” she said.
Loguerico noted while some children develop learning issues after treatment, others do not experience any problems.
“We’ve seen kids that have gone through treatment as a toddler and have not had any issues moving forward academically or socially but we’ve also seen the opposite, where children have missed some parts of what has been vital to their development that has hindered their education moving forward,” she said.
LOOKING AHEAD Stapleton pointed out that children may also develop psychosocial issues, and have an increased risk for ADHD. She noted that a child’s anxiety or struggle to make friends could affect their school performance.
Presley, who was diagnosed with unspecified ADHD, often struggles to remember details when she works on homework, Scott said. But the girl has not shown any signs of anxiety, which her mother has started to look out for.
Despite the learning challenges or the cancer her mother fears will return, Presley looks to the future and feels hopeful.
“She wants to be a teacher and she wants to be a mommy and she wants to do all this stuff,” Scott said. “And being a young kid, in her mind, there’s absolutely no reason why that can’t happen and I hope that still stays with her.”