You know there’s a learning curve when it comes to type 1 diabetes. Now imagine being faced with a room full of new friends each September, none of whom has a clue what it is or what you’re doing with that poking device. Kids tend to find a way to explain diabetes to their classmates, but you can help them get the conversation started on the right foot. In fact, experts recommend speaking to your child’s class at the beginning of every school year to educate the students about type 1 and head off potential misunderstanding or even bullying. So what do you say to a room full of kids about diabetes? From games to books to talking points, here are some helpful tips for creating an engaging presentation.
Why Talking About Type 1 Matters
Your child’s teachers, the school nurse, and the principal are all aware of your son or daughter’s diabetes, so why does it matter that classmates learn about type 1? For one thing, because of the risk of high or low blood sugars, says Bethany King, L.I.S.W., a social worker and diabetes team member at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, “the more people who understand diabetes, the safer your child will be.”
“Since diabetes is not a ‘visible’ disease,” adds Wynola Wayne, R.N., B.S.N., C.D.E., a diabetes nurse clinician and educator at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, “it’s important to share with classmates some of the signs of low blood sugar and when children should alert an adult to get help.”
Facilitating an open discussion is also important for correcting misconceptions about diabetes, including fears related to the word “disease.” As Wayne points out, “It’s important to let children know that yes, diabetes is called a disease, but it’s not a disease that you catch, like a cold.”
Educating classmates about diabetes can also help with self-consciousness your child may be feeling. “In some ways when a child keeps his or her diabetes diagnosis from others, it sends the message that there is something to be embarrassed or ashamed of,” says King. “There are many misconceptions that people have about diabetes. Sharing with the class and debunking these myths can prevent some frustration for your child down the road,” she adds.
Grade Level Suggestions
What you say at your classroom visit and the topics you discuss should be based on what keeps most kids in your child’s grade level interested and engaged. Age-appropriate suggestions include the following.
Early Elementary: When it was time to talk to her son’s kindergarten class, Christina D., a mom from Las Cruces, N.M., worked with the teacher to come in at story time during the first week of school.
“It was such a natural fit,” says Christina. “The children all gathered around me, excited to hear a story. I read them Coco Goes Back to School, a picture book our diabetes educator had recommended. They loved it. After the story, I told them that, just like Coco, their classmate (my son) has diabetes, and they can all help him stay healthy by understanding that he needs to leave the room sometimes to have the nurse help him with his checks.” (You can ask your diabetes healthcare provider for a free copy of Coco Goes Back to School, or click here to read it online.)
Wayne agrees that reading books to children in the lower elementary grades can be effective. (More book suggestions can be found here). She also suggests a show-and-tell approach to leading class discussions. “Bring in some of your child’s daily care tools, such as meters and insulin pens, so children can see them up close as they learn about why your child uses them,” she recommends.
If your child is comfortable doing so, he or she can help you explain in his or her own words how the equipment is used. Another fun teaching tool Wayne often suggests parents use is a cute stuffed animal on which you can demonstrate insulin injections and blood sugar checks.
It’s important to be direct in letting classmates know that your child can eat the same kinds of foods as other children and can take part in the same activities, including gym class and after-school and weekend sports. Both Wayne and King recommend leaving plenty of time for questions, since small kids tend to have lots of them!
“Be prepared for a student to ask if you can catch diabetes from your child sneezing or coughing,” says Christina. “My son is now in fifth grade, and I’ve heard some variation of this question every year. Have an answer ready for that one.” If it helps, ask the school nurse to be on hand during the presentation for help answering questions.
Upper Elementary: Students in third, fourth, and fifth grades may already be taking health class or studying the basics of biology. For children in these age groups, it’s still helpful to take a show-and-tell approach to explaining diabetes, but don’t be surprised if you start needing to field some fairly sophisticated questions from classmates. “During the presentation I gave at the beginning of third grade, one student asked me why we didn’t inject insulin directly into a vein to make sure it went right into the bloodstream, since that’s where the glucose is. Having an 8-year-old understand enough about the body — and diabetes — to ask this question blew my mind!” admits Christina.
What else works for upper elementary students? Games, games, and more games! “I came in for one of the health classes in fourth grade, and we played Diabetes Bingo, which was a huge hit. I asked questions like ‘What are three symptoms of a low blood sugar?’ and the kids had to check their bingo cards for “sweaty, shaky, weak.” We had a great time, and they learned a lot. My son’s job was to reach into the hat for the questions.” Click here for directions and other diabetes game suggestions.
Middle School: By the tween and early teen years, don’t be surprised if you start taking the back seat in classroom presentations. “Oftentimes the younger teen will present along with their parent, with the child doing most of the talking,” says Wayne.
What else works in middle school talks? “Many students like to give computer presentations showing celebrities, especially athletes, with diabetes. This is of interest to young people and shows that diabetes doesn’t limit participation in sports and other activities,” notes King. If your child would like to make a slideshow like this, check out our gallery of celebrities with type 1 for ideas.
King also notes that some middle school students prefer talking about diabetes as part of a health or science project. “This approach can feel less intimidating, yet they still get to share their personal experiences,” she finds.
High School: Has your son or daughter had type 1 since elementary school or younger? “Typically, kids stop giving presentations at the high school level if they’ve been diagnosed for a while, since they typically go to school with the same group of kids,” says King. “However, teens diagnosed during high school will often talk with their home rooms about their diagnosis, prepare a diabetes-related science project, or present to a group of teachers.”
Wayne suggests talking to your high-schooler about whether he or she is comfortable sharing information at school or would like your help to make others aware.
The beginning of the school year may seem like the logical choice for when to schedule a diabetes talk. But any time of the year is a good time for classmates to learn more about type 1. According to King, “If a child is diagnosed mid-year or toward the end of the year, it’s never too late! Sharing with others is what is most important.”
Disclaimer: The experiences and suggestions recounted in these articles are not intended as medical advice, and they are not necessarily the “typical” experiences of families with a child who has type 1 diabetes. These situations are unique to the families depicted. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding the treatment of type 1 diabetes and the frequency of blood glucose monitoring.