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The sweet life at school

Here’s some advice from Novo Nordisk for teachers with diabetic children in their classroom…

One of the many challenges facing busy educators today is how to manage the situation if they have a child with special healthcare needs in their classroom. This is especially true of conditions that can be life-threatening, like diabetes. As up to 3.5 million South Africans are estimated to be living with diabetes, and as up to 45% of all new cases diagnosed are in children, the chances of having a child with diabetes in the classroom are quite high. So it’s important for teachers to know what to do if this is the case.

“Each school should have a formal process for obtaining information about special-needs children,” says Jacquie van Viegen, a diabetes educator at Novo Nordisk, “and all teachers should be notified if there are children with diabetes or other chronic conditions at the school. This enables them to be alert to any changes in the child’s behaviour or to any signs of distress. It also gives individual teachers the opportunity to educate classmates about the condition in general at the beginning of the school year.”

Written instructions and guidelines from parents can be especially helpful, and these can be pinned up in an accessible place in the classroom so that both teachers and fellow learners can refer to them if necessary. Educating classmates about their friend’s condition will also help to eliminate fear and empower them to act if necessary.

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 10.39.28 AM“It’s always helpful to include information and discussion on special-needs classmates during the welcoming process at the start of the year,” says van Viegan. “This is important in order to dispel myths about diabetes and other chronic conditions.”

Children may, for instance, need to be reassured that diabetes isn’t contagious, and be enabled with the necessary knowledge to help their friend out should the need arise. Knowing about diabetes will also help them to recognise that, when a classmate’s behaviour is unusual, this may be a sign that they need assistance.

On an everyday level, teachers of younger children in particular should keep a watchful eye over the situation without giving the impression that the child is receiving preferential treatment. They should, for instance, ensure that children with diabetes have a healthy snack before undertaking strenuous exercise, either in the gym or on the sports field. Exercise, like insulin, lowers blood glucose levels, and can lead to low blood sugar or hypoglycaemia.

Similarly, teachers should ensure that children with diabetes always have access to an emergency source of glucose in order to counteract a hypoglycaemic episode should this occur. A ready supply of glucose sweets is always advisable, and a small carton of fruit juice can be a life-saver in an emergency.

“It’s also important for teachers to understand that children with diabetes need to have regular snacks throughout the day,” says van Viegen, “and they should allow them to eat a small yoghurt or another suitable snack in class if necessary. Some children may also need to use the bathroom more frequently than others, and this should be taken into account too.”

And it’s essential for teachers to be able to identify the early warning signs of a hypoglycaemic episode. In general, these include irritability, sleepiness and erratic responses to questions. The child who appears not to be paying attention may, in fact, be getting low on all-important glucose.

“In terms of first-response treatment, glucose sweets or fruit juice usually does the trick,” says van Viegan, “but if the child doesn’t show signs of improvement almost immediately, it’s important to seek medical help.”

Informed and caring teachers can make all the difference to a child living with diabetes or any other chronic condition. They can help to teach them how to live normal, active lives outside the home, and can ensure that they’re well integrated with their peers.

“In fact,” says van Viegan, “the lessons they teach them about coping with the condition in everyday situations are likely to be of great value to them throughout their lives.”

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