Diabetes Self-Management Articles

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Diabetes Support at School
Starting a Group

by Debra Madaris Efird

I am a firm believer that groups can make all things fun, not just bearable. In almost 20 years of school guidance counseling, I’ve had kids in support groups laughing even when dealing with such heavy topics as grief and divorce. Over the last three years I have developed and led a support group of middle school students who have Type 1 diabetes. And they have been grinning, snickering, and laughing out loud!

If your school or community does not offer a support group for teens with diabetes, perhaps you need only to ask for one. That’s what happened in my case. A parent of a recently diagnosed child commented to the school nurse, in my presence, that she wished there were a support group somewhere for such kids. Knowing next to nothing about Type 1 diabetes, I stepped up.

How do you initiate such a group at your child’s school? First, you need to contact a guidance counselor or the school nurse to find out if there are enough students with Type 1 diabetes to form a group; an effective group needs at least four members. (The same general approach would likely work well for a group of students with Type 2 diabetes, although you might need to alter some of the activities suggested here.) Then you need to ask the counselor to consider becoming its leader. Emphasize the emotional and social benefits of having such a group. Point out that a group will help students realize they are not alone in coping with this condition, and that group members will form a close bond with each other as they express feelings that only others with diabetes can fully understand. In a group setting, they can learn from each other’s mistakes, discuss uncomfortable situations that arise, and buoy one another with hope. It should be hard for the counselor to ignore your plea, especially if you come equipped with a suggested group agenda (such as a copy of this article)!

Getting started
Any school counselor interested in starting a diabetes group in a school should obtain a list of diagnosed students from the school nurse, since the nurse is the primary staff member closely connected to these students. The counselor should then draft a letter to the students explaining the proposed group, including an agenda of topics to be covered, if possible.

No meetings should be conducted with the students before parents are contacted. Some families may have reservations about a counselor talking with their children about a private health condition, but most will be pleased that someone is recognizing their special concerns. So far I have had 100% participation. Parents have been not merely agreeable, but enthusiastic.

Though my focus is middle school, these group sessions could easily be adapted for elementary school. The nature of this kind of group calls for a yearlong schedule: It’s not as if the students’ diabetes will disappear for part of the year. Also, since the group will most likely be composed of students from several grade levels, practical scheduling may limit meeting times to the first or last period of the day. For this reason, I meet with my group on a monthly rather than weekly basis throughout the school year. With meetings spaced far apart, the first- and last-period teachers rarely complain about the students missing their classes.

A group leader will most likely find that the months don’t roll around fast enough for students in the group. Most kids with Type 1 diabetes have never before had the opportunity to be in such a setting, and they are elated to have their situation acknowledged. Add to that the opportunity to miss class once a month, and the diagnosis has suddenly taken on a positive aura.

I invited the school nurse to be a part of our group, and she joins us when no “emergencies” are parked at her door. The relationship of a child with diabetes (or another chronic condition) with the school nurse — if there is one — is of paramount importance. In a support group, the nurse can learn about the multifaceted lives of these students, something beyond the daily accounting of numbers.

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