Back to School: Strategies for Success

Team spirit is a big part of every student’s school life. Whether they’re on the debate team or the soccer team, acting in the school play or making teams of their own (fans of superheroes, clubhouse, or gymnastics), being a part of a group is important to a young person’s self identity.

Students with type 1 diabetes are part of another team as well, and unfortunately it might not be one “recognized” by the school. Rather than leaving their children feeling like they’re on a team of one, however, there are many things parents can do to build a team that will prevent their children from feeling alone while managing their diabetes in school.

Your child’s team is made up of a variety of school staff–teachers, the principal, school nurse, coaches, counselors, and even the bus driver and lunchroom monitor. But the team can also include classmates and maybe even other students with diabetes.

About one in 500 young people has type 1 diabetes. That means that, depending on the size of the school, your child may be the only student with the disease, or there may be several others. It’s important to ensure that monitoring his or her condition doesn’t make your child feel alone, isolated, or ashamed. At the same time, schools might not have much experience with children with diabetes. So seeing to it that that school staff is aware of special needs–checking blood sugar levels, administering insulin and having snacks as needed–is an important part of a young person’s emotional well-being at school, and crucial to his or her physical well-being as well. Written, detailed plans for your child’s care should be provided and discussed with school staff. Every school is required to follow a protocol, known as a “Section 504″ plan, by federal law. A sample plan can be seen at www.jdrf.org/diabetesinschool.

The JDRF Online Diabetes Support Team can also provide assistance in charting a course for care. A thorough plan spells out the daily and emergency needs of your child, including:

  • How often he or she should test blood sugars, and special circumstances that might require testing;
  • How insulin is administered and what your child is able to do without help;
  • The sorts of snacks that are allowed and the times that are appropriate for them;
  • Symptoms of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, and ketones, and what school staff should do.

The plan might also include information such as the date your child was diagnosed, and an overview of his or her current health status. It should be updated with each new school year, be signed by the teacher and principal or nurse, and be discussed at another meeting with school personnel at the beginning of each term.

Because diabetes is not as common in schools as you might think, it’s important to make certain that teachers are made aware of how high and low blood sugar can affect a student’s performance. Rather than viewing irritability or sleepiness during class as a symptom of a “problem student,” the teacher should be aware of possible causes. High blood sugars can cause frequent urination, and low blood sugars require a snack and frequent testing. Checking blood sugar levels–especially before a field trip or a test–can help the student’s academic performance and classroom behavior. Alternate times for tests should be allowed if a student is experiencing hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia. A private place where a student can easily go to check blood sugar should also be made available.

While it’s a good idea to make sure your child’s backpack includes snacks as well as necessary monitoring and equipment for administering insulin, extra snacks and insulin can also be kept in the classroom and with the school nurse. Emergency phone numbers should also be given to all faculty responsible for the student’s well-being during the day.

The school nurse will likely be the point person in case of an emergency, and your child will feel more comfortable with that arrangement if he or she already knows the nurse. With the consent of the parents and students, a nurse or counselor might arrange a “get acquainted” meeting with the student, or even a single meeting with all students living with diabetes if there’s more than one in the school. Creating an informal “buddy system” can give a young person a peer to talk to, or create a mentor relationship, and make them feel less isolated.

Young people with diabetes should not be excluded from or asked to sit out of any activities. Physical activity is important to all children, but especially those with diabetes, so they should be involved in all regular physical education course activities. And field trips are a big part of the educational experience, not just supplementing regular coursework but providing a fun break from the classroom. With a little attention and advance planning, there’s no reason that the child with diabetes can’t be involved in all of the activities other students partake in.

Ultimately, the school is a place where students want to learn independence while not feeling separated from their classmates. A good health management plan will allow them to take ownership of their condition, learn to maintain their health without feeling stress, and gain the benefits of interacting with other students with diabetes. With an informed faculty and a good plan in place, your child won’t just manage his or her diabetes, but will learn responsibility and acquire skills that will help him or her deal with the physical and emotional issues diabetes presents for years to come.

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How Will You Handle It?*

School can bring up all kinds of diabetes questions. Even if you think you’ve covered all the bases in your diabetes plans, problems may still arise. The following are real situations that have emerged for real kids. Ask your child how he or she would handle them.

  • Do you want everyone in class to know that you have diabetes? Pro: If they understand, they can help you. Con: You might be treated differently.
  • What will you do if a grown-up at school goes against your diabetes care plan, or does something dangerous, like doesn’t let you test your blood sugar before running laps in gym class?
  • What will you do if your blood sugar is too high during a test, and you can’t concentrate?
  • What will you say if someone makes an uninformed remark, such as, “You’ll die if you eat that.”?
  • What will you do if candy is distributed and you or your parents haven’t planned for it?

There are no right and wrong answers–but it helps to think about situations like these beforehand, and know where to turn for help. Some suggestions: Your local JDRF chapter, or message boards like those at www.childrenwithdiabetes.com.

Must-Have Resources to Help*

To help you get ready for school and teach your teachers, the National Diabetes Education Program offers a free booklet, “Helping the Student with Diabetes Succeed: A Guide for School Personnel.”

The booklet describes diabetes and how it may affect kids, how school personnel should assist you, sample plan forms, and an overview of school responsibilities under federal laws. It also
contains a handy section of checklists that detail everyone’s responsibilities.

To obtain a copy, download it from http://ndep.nih.gov/publications/, or call 1-800-438-5383. You may also order a school information kit from JDRF by calling 1-800-533-CURE, or online here. Your parents can also see lots of tips from other parents on the JDRF Web site.

*Portions of “Must-Have Resources to Help” and “How Will You Handle It?” are taken from a special Back to School section in the fall 2006 issue of Countdown for Kids magazine.