A Student with Diabetes Is in My Class

By Rosenthal-Malek, Andrea; Greenspan, Jan | Teaching Exceptional Children, January/February 1999 | Go to article overview

A Student with Diabetes Is in My Class


Rosenthal-Malek, Andrea, Greenspan, Jan, Teaching Exceptional Children


The scene is any class-elementary or high school, general or special education. The teacher is at her desk while the class is taking an exam. Allison raises her hand and asks to go to the bathroom.

The teacher says, "No, not right now, please wait until the end of the exam."

Allison gets up, walks to the teacher's desk and asks again, "May I go to the bathroom and get a drink?"

The teacher repeats her original statement and requests that Allison wait until after the exam.

Allison angrily states, "I'm going now!" and leaves the room.

Under most circumstances, the teacher's response in this seenario may appear to be appropriate, and the student seems to be the one way out of line. But this student is not an ordinary student. She has juvenile diabetes, or Type I insulin-dependent di abetes. Students with diabetes may look or even act like all other students in your classroom, but in actuality, they have health-related issues (which may not be immediately apparent) and often require modifications to their daily routine during the school day.

This article addresses areas of concern for teachers who have a student with diabetes in their classrooms. Teachers need to understand how diabetes affects a student's ability to function successfully in the classroom. We discuss misconceptions about the effects of the disease, how the disease may affect the student in the classroom, and strategies and accommodations that teachers can use to help meet the student's needs. In addition, we discuss how students with diabetes feel about their disease.

What Is Diabetes?

Diabetes is an autoimmune illness, similar to rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis. Autoimmunity is a problem where the body's white blood cells, which normally fight infection, turn on a part of the body. In diabetes, the white blood cells target the cells that produce insulin. After a certain amount of time, there is a lack of insulin and one of two forms of diabetes, noninsulin-dependent diabetes, the more common form, and insulin-dependent diabetes, better known as juvenile diabetes, eventually develops (Norbury-Glaser, 1997).

Although there are no actual figures on the exact number of diabetics in this country, estimates range from 8 to 14 million persons, of which about 800,000 to 2 million are insulin-dependent. At least 100,000 of those afflicted are children 19 years and younger (1993 estimates) (Klatt, 1997; Norbury-Glaser, 1997). The figures vary for a number of reasons including the fact that many diabetics go undiagnosed and because there is no national registry and estimates are developed from various regional sources (Klatt; Norbury-Glaser). Juvenile diabetes can occur as early as age 6 months and at every age through adulthood (Bates, 1984).

Although juvenile diabetes is categorized under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a chronic health impairment because it requires continued medical treatment (Frieman & Settel, 1994), unless otherwise disabled, students with this disease are routinely placed into general education classrooms. Because the disease may accompany other disabilities, however, these students could be placed into any special education classroom. Considering the number of students with diabetes, special education teachers will at some point probably work with one or more of these students.

The parent, administrator, or the school nurse should inform you if a student with diabetes is to be placed into your classroom. This knowledge, however, is not a guarantee that you will know what to do when a specific incident revolving around the diabetes arises, especially because some situations that arise may need specific accommodations or modifications to the student's daily routines.

Understanding Is the Key

To meet the physical and psychological needs as well as the federal mandates for students with diabetes, teachers need to know the basic elements of the disease, the general aspects of the medical management of the disease, the best way to work with parents, and the best approach for including the child into the classroom routines (Frieman & Settel, 1994). …

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