School and Narcolepsy: Tips for Students
Last updated: September 2023
Being diagnosed with narcolepsy can feel overwhelming, particularly when faced with managing narcolepsy and academic success at school. Fortunately, there are ways to help make the process feel possible. Here are some tips to help you successfully navigate life as a student with narcolepsy.
Communication is key
Be open and upfront with teachers and school administrators. Before a new school year begins, schedule a time to meet individually with each of your teachers to discuss your diagnosis. Provide literature for them about narcolepsy. Take time to explain what your body cues might look like when you are not fully present and how they can best help call you back to focus without embarrassing you in front of your peers.
This would also be a good opportunity to go over any school accommodations you have and prepare the expectations for all parties so everyone starts the year on the same page.1,2
Special education plans
There are two plans available for students who need classroom accommodations for learning, a 504 and an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
A 504 plan, most commonly used for those with narcolepsy, is a plan for managing a student’s learning disability within the general classroom setting. The plan for addressing how to manage a student’s disability is developed with the parents, principle, and teacher(s). Each state has slightly different rules and guidelines for the 504, so it is important to become familiar with your state and school district’s process for establishing a 504.
An IEP is a special education plan for students with a disability in one of thirteen specific categories and is usually an accommodation where the student is taken from the general classroom to have specialized instruction in a separate classroom.
Both plans are reviewed and, if necessary, updated annually. Both plans require an evaluation to formally qualify for classroom accommodations. A 504 plan can carry over into post-secondary education but an IEP ends with high school graduation.1,2,4
What do accommodations look like?
A school accommodation will look slightly different for each student, as no two students’ needs are exactly the same. A student may also need more accommodations when first diagnosed than after having lived with and having learned how to manage their narcolepsy after a year or two. Some examples of accommodations students with narcolepsy may have include:1,2
- Help with note-taking in class
- Access to teacher lecture slides and notes
- A seat at the back of the classroom and permission to stand up or move during class
- A designated place and time (such as a nurse’s office after lunch) to take a nap
- Additional time for taking tests or quizzes and flexible assignment deadlines
- A flexible class schedule
- Highlighted editions or audio recordings of textbooks to help focus when reading
One of the most challenging aspects of narcolepsy is staying alert and engaged when feeling an overwhelming need to sleep or zone out. There are ways to help keep you alert when in class or studying.
One of the best ways is exercise. During class, if approved as part of your education accommodations, when you feel sleepy stand up to listen or walk around the back of the classroom to help keep you engaged. When studying or completing homework, taking a 15-30 minute break and going for a walk, run, bike ride, or doing some stretching or yoga poses can help reengage your brain and wake up your body.1,2
Taking a short nap (30 minutes or less) after school and/or during the school day can help recharge your energy and give you renewed focus.1,2
Getting enough sleep is very important for those with narcolepsy. Maintaining a consistent bedtime and waking time, even on weekends, can help you feel most alert. It also helps your body to fall asleep and wake more easily. Part of getting enough sleep is being selective about your after-school activities. Pick one or two activities that you really love, but make sure they do not interfere with your getting enough rest to manage the narcolepsy.1-3
As part of your treatment plan, your doctor may prescribe certain medications to help you focus and perform your best academically. It may take time to find the right dosage and best times for medication and school work. Given time, by paying attention to your patterns and communicating with your doctor you should be able to find the best methods for you to successfully navigate school with narcolepsy.1,2
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