When a child is diagnosed with diabetes, one of the many concerns a parent may have is that others will treat the child differently because of the condition. This is especially true in the school setting, where they are constantly interacting with schoolmates and teachers, who may have little or no understanding of diabetes.
As the incidence of diabetes in children is increasing ' one in every 300 is currently affected ' it is likely that the majority of schools will have at least one pupil with the condition.
As it is most commonly diagnosed at ages four to five, primary school teachers are in particular need of understanding this condition, so that their own treatment of the child is appropriate. It is also important that classmates do not pick up on any negative or fearful attitudes.
'In one case, children in a particular class did not want to sit next to a child who had diabetes. That did not come from the children. That idea was brought on by adults', said May McConnell, North-west regional officer with the Diabetes Federation of Ireland and herself a former teacher.
Ms McConnell explained that in the past, if there were a new diagnosis of diabetes in a school, a diabetes nurse would visit in order to provide information. However, nowadays, nurses 'are thin on the ground' and they simply do not have the time to make such visits.
This means that if a child is diagnosed with diabetes, teachers (and in turn pupils) may not be given the information they need about the condition.
This is an issue that the Northwest branch of the Federation has been attempting to tackle for some time. They have been approaching education centres to hold information seminars for teachers.
There are education centres in every county and they provide, amongst other things, in-service training to teachers.
The first such seminar was held recently in Donegal. Thirteen teachers heard from a diabetes nurse and the parent of a child with diabetes.
According to Ms McConnell, it is absolutely essential that teachers have some understanding of diabetes. For example, if a child's sugar levels are low, their behaviour can change so that a normally placid child can become disoriented.
'On occasion, when a child has needed a snack, some teachers have been known to put them outside the classroom. This can be very damaging to the child as it makes them feel different and apart from the other pupils', she explained.
She added that while some teachers may be dismissive of the condition, others would be over-protective, for example, by not allowing the child to take part in sport.
However, a child with diabetes can take part in sport as much as any other child.
The teacher also needs to be able to explain to the rest of the class about diabetes. Ms McConnell said this explanation did not need to be detailed; younger children simply need to be told: 'Mary needs to eat more'.
The Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) agrees that teachers need to be informed about diabetes. Currently, if a teacher enquires about diabetes, the INTO directs them to the Federation. It fully supports attempts by the Federation to help inform teachers, however, it questions why this information is not coming from the Department of Health and the Department of Education.
There needs to be co-ordination from both departments in this area so that information, and training if necessary, can be provided to teachers.
'If a teacher is told that a child has diabetes, it can be a worry if they are not familiar with the condition. However, once a teacher is made aware, there is no problem', said John Carr, general secretary of the INTO.
He added that there should be a 'whole school approach', so that everyone in the school, rather than just one teacher was informed about diabetes.
However, what if the teacher is never informed that a child has diabetes?
While one would assume that such a condition would always be brought to the attention of the school, Ms McConnell said that this is not always the case.
Some parents are so conscious of their child feeling different that they 'do not want to rock the boat' and so do not inform the child's teacher.
The Federation strongly advises parents to inform the school, particularly the teacher, about their child's condition.
'Information is power' we need to inform people about diabetes.
Some important points for teachers to remember are:
Diabetes is a serious condition, but a child with diabetes can live a normal life
Regular snacks or meals are necessary to prevent low blood sugar
Never detain a child or delay breaks unless satisfactory eating arrangements are in place.
If a child shows any symptoms of low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia or 'hypo') they should be treated promptly. Symptoms include:
Lack of concentration.
Older children will usually know what to do and will carry glucose tablets or something sweet in their pockets, but teachers should have a supply available. A non-diet fizzy drink is a convenient alternative in the classroom. Full recovery takes about 10 minutes and the child should not have to leave the classroom unless their behaviour is disturbing the rest of the class.
The Federation believes teachers should not be asked to give insulin injections. The Federation recommends that:
When a child with diabetes is unwell, they should be in the care of a responsible adult at all times
There should be a formal agreement with the family of each child with diabetes about what to do if the school is unhappy about the child's health
Parents should be notified if a child with diabetes vomits
Children with diabetes may have to use the toilet more often than other children. Failure to allow them access may be detrimental to their health
A child with diabetes can take part fully in sport; however, vigorous exercise should be planned, as a hypo will occur if there is an imbalance between the amount of food taken and the extent of activity.
Discussions on this topic are now closed.