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Type 1 Diabetes and Education

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There are many reasons why a young person may have difficulty engaging with education, but would you consider Type 1 diabetes to be one of them? Read on to find out more...

Type 1 diabetes is a chronic, lifelong auto immune condition which is triggered when the immune system mistakenly attacks insulin producing cells in the pancreas which affects how the body metabolises glucose. Type 1 diabetes can cause fatigue, weight loss, frequent urination, and other physical and mental health issues in young people. Educators should play a key role in supporting young people with Type 1 diabetes.

This guide provides information and strategies for anyone supporting young people with Type 1 diabetes to maintain their physical and mental wellbeing.

Physical Health Considerations

Becoming familiar with the physical effects of Type 1 Diabetes will help you better support students with the condition.

  • Understand the symptoms of high and low blood sugars. Whilst most young people know when their blood glucose is out of range, not all are able to recognise the symptoms themselves. Awareness of these signs can help you know when you should act and when to get emergency medical attention.
  • Follow a Care Plan, each student with Type 1 diabetes should have individualised plan developed in conjunction with the child, their family, and their medical team. This plan should include how to monitor glucose levels, what to do in case of low or high blood sugar, and other necessary information.
  • Support the use of devices used to manage Blood glucose levels. Modern technology has revolutionised the way that people with diabetes manage their condition. Continuous Glucose Monitors (CGMs) track levels of glucose in the body and provide real-time feedback on how the body is responding to different treatments. Some insulin pumps work with a CGM to deliver precise doses of insulin at regular intervals in response to glucose levels. Whilst these devices remove the burden of insulin injections, the challenges should not be underestimated. Insulin pumps and CGMs are devices which are attached to a young person’s body and require constant attention.
  • Ensure that students with Type 1 diabetes have the necessary accommodations in place. This may include additional toilet breaks, permission to bring snacks and drinks into lessons, exam access arrangements and always ensuring immediate access to their supplies and equipment which may include a mobile phone used to access their CGM device.
  • Be aware of the potential impact of Type One Diabetes on learning. Many people focus on how Diabetes affects the body, but it can also have a significant impact on the brain. High blood sugar levels frequently cause cognitive problems including difficulty concentrating, poor judgment, and difficulty making decisions. This can have a significant effect on a child's ability to perform everyday tasks and can be difficult to manage. Low blood sugars (also know as hypos) can quickly become a medical emergency but can also affect cognition and can be very tiring, making concentration impossible.

Mental Health Considerations

It is important to recognise the mental health impacts of the added stress and strain that young people with Type One Diabetes are under. Unfortunately, research has shown that young people with type 1 diabetes have an increased risk of suicide and self-harm They are also more likely to suffer from a variety of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.

  • Offer emotional support to students with Type 1 diabetes. Let them know that they can come to you with any concerns and remind them that there is support available to help manage their condition.
  • Recognise the unique challenges that students with Type 1 diabetes may face and do not penalise them for having to manage their condition by imposing sanctions for aspects of the condition that are out of their control.
  • Refer the student to a mental health professional if you are concerned. Type 1 diabetes is a relentless condition which must be managed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and the impact of this should not be underestimated. Diabetes burnout is common and is not just a symptom of teenage rebellion! Be on the lookout for signs that a young person is struggling - these may include changes in appetite, mood, and sleep patterns.
  • Look out for signs of disordered eating. Eating disorders are more common amongst young people with Type One Diabetes who may believe they must restrict their food intake to keep their blood sugar levels under control, or they may become obsessed with counting carbs or calories. Diabulimia is an eating disorder in which people limit their insulin intake to lose weight. It is a dangerous form of disordered eating which can lead to severe health complications, such as kidney failure, blindness, and even death. It is essential that young people with this disorder receive the right kind of support, as it can be life-threatening if not properly treated.

About the author

Emma Woodroffe

Emma is a Staff Education Specialist with Fresh Start in Education. Emma has experience working in schools with young people of all ages with a particular focus on SEN and is also a parent to a teenager with Type One Diabetes. 

To get in touch with a member of the Fresh Start in Education team, click here

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