Nothing strikes fear in a parent’s heart like sending a child with type 1 diabetes to school. Whether the child is returning to class for the first time after diagnosis, or it’s the start of a new school year, handing him or her off to school personnel can bring anxiety and uncertainty. After all, who knows better how to take care of our children than us?!?
We watch our friends count down the days until school starts (or a mid-year vacation ends) with glee and anticipation. We hear them talk about their concerns that their child will have friends in a new class and that the bus will come when it is scheduled.
We just smile and nod, because our concerns are different. Our concerns deal with life and death. Who will take care of our child at school? Who will help count carbohydrates or deliver insulin? Who will know how to correct a high blood sugar? Who will know what to do if blood sugar is low? Who is going to keep my child alive and safe during the day?
As a parent of a child with type 1 diabetes, I know these fears all too well.
As a teacher, I was shocked with how little I knew.
In the years preceding my daughter’s diabetes diagnosis, I had a few children with type 1 in my classroom. I was given the sheet with all the faces on it—the one depicting typical low and high blood sugar symptoms. I was told to send the children to the clinic if they experienced any of these symptoms. And that was it.
I had no idea.
I clearly remember sitting in my daughter’s hospital room during our week-long stay after her diagnosis and thinking, “Oh my goodness. I didn’t know. Anything could have happened.”
No one ever told me that type 1 was life-threatening. No one ever told me what happened if blood sugar gets too low. No one ever told me that diabetes affects every part of a person’s body— and their ability to learn.
I had always believed myself to be empathetic to my students and their needs. So I felt horrible that I could have made their lives more difficult because of my ignorance.
And I vowed that it would not happen again. Not to my daughter. Not in the school where I teach. And ideally, not anywhere. Education has become my mantra. It always was; now it’s just a different kind of education. I view it as my responsibility to educate my daughter’s teachers and school staff (as well as my own school staff) about type 1 diabetes. With more and more children being diagnosed every day, teachers need to know about this disease. They need to know what it is, what it can do, and what it means for them.
Here are some things I’ve found helpful when I’m talking with my daughter’s school staff about her care:
Approach all meetings with a sense of teamwork.
I always approach my daughter’s teachers and nurses with a positive attitude. I even say to them, “I know we all want what is best for her, and we all want to keep her safe and healthy so she can be successful.” You know the phrase, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar”? Same thing here. If you go in with guns blazing, expecting the worst, you are not as likely to get what you want. Starting out with a spirit of cooperation goes a long way!
Be willing to compromise.
There are some things that are non-negotiable for me. For instance, my daughter always needs to have access to her supplies, including treatment for severe low blood sugar. However, I’m willing to compromise on other things, like the exact times when she goes to the nurse to test. When you’re willing to give and take, you end up getting more of what you want.
Make sure to educate the staff about diabetes.
It’s very possible that they know little about type 1 diabetes—and that what they do know is not accurate. Staff might be more willing to give you what you want if they know why you’re asking for it. [Editor’s note: Download diabetes information written for teachers and school staff from the American Diabetes Association here.]
Make it easy.
I make my own information sheets about type 1 diabetes for all of my daughter’s teachers and school staff. We schedule meetings with her teachers and nurse before school begins. My husband and I make ourselves available throughout the day in case we are needed. This means we carry our cell phones everywhere we go … just in case! We offer to come in and talk to the class about diabetes or to send in books and other materials for the teacher to use to talk to the class. (You can find many of these resources on my blog.)
Keep communication open.
I check in with my daughter’s teacher and nurse every so often to make sure everything is going well and there are no issues. I always stress that I WANT them to let me know if something isn’t working so that we can fix it. I always make sure they know that they can come to me.
Learn to be OK with different.
This is one I’ve struggled with! I’m learning that the school does not have to do things exactly the way I would do them. Sometimes my daughter may get more carbs to treat a low than I would have given her. Sometimes she doesn’t get a correction for a high when I think she should. Sometimes things happen that aren’t exactly the way I would have wanted them. But at the end of the day, it’s not that big of a deal. If it becomes a consistent thing, then I will bring it up. If it has put her in danger, then I will definitely say something! But I’ve learned to let go a little and not “sweat the small stuff.”
Being a parent of a child with type 1 diabetes is hard. It comes with sleepless nights, hospital visits, medical supplies, carb counting, measuring, weighing, injecting, testing, blood, sweat, and tears. It’s spent worrying about today and facing the uncertainty of tomorrow. It often feels like you’re climbing a mountain. And that’s when our children are in our own care. Entrusting them to someone else often feels like more than we can do.
It reminds me of these lines from Dr. Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go: “You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted, but mostly they’re darked. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?”
Sending our children off into the world—whether it’s to school or a friend’s house or just the backyard—is full of risk and uncertainty. But we know it’s something we have to do.
I find comfort in these words from the same book: “Be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact. And remember that life’s a Great Balancing Act.”
So we let our children go to climb their own mountains. While we watch, cheer them on, and make sure we’ve done all we can to prepare them (and the mountain itself!) for their journey.
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.