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Do kids with diabetes need learning support in school?

We’ve discussed diabetes and kids in school in some detail, but we know that if your child has diabetes it’s a lifelong journey. That’s why we asked Type 1 diabetic and learning support teacher Shelly Schutte to discuss whether or not diabetes needs learning support in school. Here’s what she had to say…


When I tell people I’m a Learning Support teacher, they’re usually slightly confused. “Ahh, so you’re a remedial teacher,” they eventually say. Well, sort of… but not quite. The word remedial implies there’s a learning problem to fix. Many things that affect learning potential are not able to be fixed. But they are able to be supported. Learning Support teachers are specialised teachers who work to support students with some kind of barrier to learning. This can be fairly obvious interventions like providing a student with dyslexia with assistive reading devices. Or less obvious ways, like supporting a student with a chronic condition to get what they need, in order to thrive at school.

Type 1 diabetes at school

Type 1 diabetes can present a range of challenges to learning successfully. Low blood sugar alone can cause a decrease in mental processing for many hours afterwards, which is tricky if a student is writing exams or presenting an oral. But the more significant barrier diabetics face is the physical and psychological toll that constant diabetes management can take.

Learning is an intensely emotional experience. No matter how far removed you are from being a student, you can probably recall the feeling of gloom when facing down a double period of a subject you hated. Or, the quick leap of nerves and excitement that accompanied the presentation of a project you worked hard on. Often, students perform much better in classes with teachers that they like,even if their teaching is not actually better. This is not a coincidence. Positive and negative emotions directly influence understanding and memory, with feelings of happiness and excitement increasing the brain’s ability to absorb and store
information, and negative emotions slowing it down.

The effects of high and low blood sugar

Diabetes can be a drain on our emotions and a constant distraction. As diabetics, we are often quick to blame ourselves if we suffer side effects of high or low blood sugars. We tell ourselves we shouldn’t have forgotten to inject, or we shouldn’t have had that high carb lunch. But although diabetes management alone could easily be a full time job, it isn’t. We are often trying to juggle work, study and social lives in addition to our diabetes management. It is our responsibility to manage our diabetes, yes, but this diabetes management responsibility was thrust upon us and it is okay to struggle. It is okay to make mistakes, and it is okay to accept help.

Do kids with diabetes need learning support?

Yes, diabetes is a condition that requires learning support – if you need it. The whole philosophy that drives learning support is rooted in supporting what works well for the student in question. There are Type 1 diabetics who, because of a strong medical and home support system, thrive at school with minimal effort. But there are others who don’t. If your child has diabetes and is struggling in school, ask yourself the following questions:

Is your child actively managing their diabetes?

High and low blood sugar is draining. If your blood sugar is consistently high or
low, your body is not going to make learning a priority. There is absolutely no shame in admitting that your diabetes is out of control. I have had diabetes for 20 years and still have periods when my HbA1c is out of range. There is no bad number, as long as you are dealing with it.

Your endocrinologist, diabetes educator and dietitian are there to help you. Be open and honest with them, even if it’s tough. If you feel like your doctor is shaming you, consider finding another doctor. If you do not have the privilege of being able to choose your
diabetes team, still be as honest as possible with who you have. Trust me, almost all of them have all gone into the medical world with a desire to help people and if you explain what you are going through, they will likely listen.

Is your child struggling emotionally?

If you are dealing with diabetes distress or fatigue, see a counsellor or a psychologist. I really cannot stress this enough. The mental toll of diabetes can be immense and asking to see a counsellor is not proof that you are failing to cope with the challenge of having diabetes. Quite the opposite – you are taking charge of your life to ensure that you thrive with diabetes.

Learning is a demanding thing for the brain to do and a ‘luxury’ in terms of what your body needs to do to survive. You are not going to be able to learn much if your brain is more focused on the anxiety, depression or stress you are feeling. The ‘threat’ that these emotions present are much more powerful than the reward of learning.

learning support for diabetes

Is your child exercising enough?

This may be surprising, but exercise is a fundamental part of learning. It increases your alertness level and spurs on the development of new neural paths in the brain. A daily programme of walking, running, jogging or dancing can really boost your school results.

What school learning support resources are available?

South Africa’s Education White Paper 6 laid out an ambitious plan to support students who have different learning needs. According to this national plan, schools are mandated to support learners through School Based Support Teams, District Based Support Teams and Resource Centres. This should theoretically give every school access to specialised learning support teachers and other professionals like Occupational Therapists, Speech and Language Pathologists and Educational Psychologists.

Like many ambitious South African plans, however, the implementation phase has been tricky. What is available at each school varies heavily based on location and the extent of private funding.

If you need support, the place to start would be your school guidance or learning support department. Explain whatever academic struggles your child is having because of diabetes and they will start working through the SIAS process (Screening, Identification, Assessment and Support) to put a plan in place to support you. This may be in the form of accommodations like extra time in exams or any other modifications or accommodations the team involved deems appropriate.

Private learning support

I wish I could promise that this would be a quick and easy process but Learning Support in South Africa is young and we have a lot of work to do. Support Teams are often stretched and doing the best they can with limited resources. However, as a Type 1 diabetic, it is important that you know you have the right to learning support, just as much as someone with a more typical learning barrier.

Find out more about the Learning Support services Shelly offers here.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Published inAdvice

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