Diabetes and learning
Diabetes can affect learning, and if it’s not well managed a child can have difficulties with attention, memory, processing speed, planning and organising and perceptual skills. So they might not achieve their full academic potential. The challenges of keeping diabetes well managed may also impact on a child’s life.
For these reasons, it’s crucial that a child is supported to manage their diabetes in all aspects of their life, including their time at school.
Some children with diabetes may have more frequent absences that those without. This won’t be the case for all, but if they do it might be due to hospital appointments or feeling unwell because of their diabetes.
Watch our video below on what care to expect in school.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a lifelong condition where the amount of glucose in the blood is too high because the body can’t use it properly. This is because the pancreas doesn’t make any insulin, or not enough, or the insulin that it does make doesn’t work properly (known as insulin resistance).
Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps glucose move into the body cells where it’s used for energy. It acts as the 'key' to 'unlock' the cells to allow the glucose in. Once the door is 'unlocked', the glucose can get in to the cells and then be used as fuel for energy. If there’s no insulin, glucose builds up in the bloodstream.
Glucose comes from digesting carbohydrate-containing foods which include starchy foods (such as bread, rice, potatoes, chapatis, yam and plantain), fruit, some dairy products, sugar and other sweet food. Glucose is also made by the body in the liver.
Types of diabetes
There are two main types of diabetes, Type 1 and Type 2.
Type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes develops if the body can’t make any insulin and it usually appears before the age of 40. It’s by far the most common type of diabetes found in children. Type 1 is always treated with insulin (either by injection or pump), plus following a healthy balanced diet and getting regular physical activity.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition, meaning that the body has attacked and destroyed its own cells (in this case the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas). Nobody knows for sure why this happens, but it is nothing to do with being overweight or any lifestyle factors, and there is nothing that can be done to prevent it.
Around 31,500 children and young people in the UK have Type 1 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes develops when the body can still make some insulin, but not enough, or when the insulin that it does make doesn’t work properly. It’s more common in people over the age of 40, (or even younger in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities) and is linked with being overweight.
While numbers of children with Type 2 diabetes are going up, it’s still relatively uncommon in children.
Type 2 diabetes is treated with a healthy diet and increased physical activity but medication, including insulin, is often needed as well.
(There are other, much rarer types of diabetes found in children, and you can find information about these in Other types of diabetes.)
All the information in the Schools section on our website is about children with Type 1 diabetes.
NB: In this information, the term 'child' refers to a child or young person of school age, generally under the age of 19, and the term 'parent' implies any person or body with parental responsibility such as a foster parent, guardian, carer or local authority.
Signs and symptoms of diabetes
If Type 1 diabetes goes untreated, glucose builds up in the bloodstream. The body tries to get rid of this glucose by passing it out in the urine. This causes dehydration, meaning that the child will get very thirsty and drink a lot.
As there is no glucose getting into the cells where it can be used for energy, the body starts to break down its stores of fat and protein for energy instead.
This is why children with untreated Type 1 diabetes often pass urine frequently, get very thirsty, may feel very tired and lose weight.
School staff can be in a position to notice the early signs that a child may have Type 1 diabetes.
Signs and symptoms: the 4 Ts of diabetes
- Toilet (going to the toilet a lot to pass urine)
- Thirsty (being really thirsty and not being able to quench the thirst)
- Tired (feeling excessively tired)
- Thinner (losing weight or looking thinner than usual)
If you notice any of these signs in a child you should let their parents know and advise them to take their child to a doctor straight away and ask for a test for diabetes.