By: Amanda Painter, president and director of Education & Development of the Food Allergy Community of East Tennessee (FACET) support group
How did you prepare for the first year your child went to school with food allergies?
Sending my daughter to school for the first time was one of the most challenging times I’ve had as the parent of a child with food allergies. There was a great amount of anxiety, worry and concern. My daughter, Lila Kate, is allergic to milk, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame and mustard. Her allergens come in many different spillable, spreadable, sticky, messy forms that are likely being consumed by most of her classmates. How could she sit with others that were eating her allergen? Would she have hurt feelings due to being different? Would her teacher treat a reaction correctly if it did happen?
Through great preparation and communication, we were able to create a plan that addressed these concerns. The plan kept her safe and included. Continued communication with the school allowed us to address any possible concerns before they became serious issues. Thanks to her caring team, she has completed three years of preschool and pre-K without a reaction. She is now registered for kindergarten and we have her 504 accommodation plan in place.
Communicating and planning with the school is only part of the preparation though.
The most important job I have as her mother is to communicate with my daughter and teach her self-management skills.
To prepare her for venturing out of our safe (allergen-free) home, we created “food rules.” These include:
- Only eat food provided from home or food that mom/dad specifically tell her is safe.
- Never touch anyone else’s food, cup or lunchbox.
- Don’t let anyone touch your food. If they do, don’t eat it and tell an adult.
- If you don’t feel well, speak up immediately. Tell an adult “please help me, I think I’m having a reaction”.
These rules are reinforced regularly. We often discuss them in the car on the way to school or situations where she could encounter her allergens.
I make a point to have an open dialogue with my daughter about how things are going at school. I specifically ask questions about lunch, snack and social times. It is important to allow her the opportunity to talk about anything that may not be going well or is upsetting her.
She is very aware of where her “medicine bag” is at all times. She knows that her teachers are trained on how to use her epinephrine auto-injector. She understands the importance of following her food rules in order to stay healthy. I make a point to let her know about my communication with the school staff and explain to her that we have developed a thorough plan to keep her safe.
What tools or resources did you use?
I relied heavily on FARE’s resources when working with my daughter’s school to prepare her accommodation and care plan.
The first document I share with anyone who may be caring for my daughter (babysitters, grandparents, ballet teacher, church staff, etc.) is her Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Emergency Care Plan. This assists with conveying what her allergist’s orders are for when and how to treat a reaction.
When deciding what avoidance strategies would be necessary for her at school, I used FARE’s Reducing the Risk of Exposure to Food Allergens resource sheet, which contains recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
What advice would you give to parents sending their child for the first time?
Start planning now. Creating an accommodation plan takes a great amount of time, energy and patience. Open communication with your school and your child is key for keeping your child safe and included.
Do your best to create a relationship of mutual respect with your child’s team at school. Say thank you when things go well and when accommodations are made for your child.
When problems arise, document the issues and take them to the appropriate person to ensure the issue is corrected. Don’t hesitate to ask questions or speak up if you aren’t comfortable with something.
Include your child as an active part of his or her plan at school. Explain that your child’s decisions and behaviors are a part of the prevention plan, but that others are also working to protect him or her. Tell your child what accommodations are in place to promote a safe environment. Show your child that his or her teacher is prepared with epinephrine, if needed.
Sending a child with food allergies to school is one of the hardest things we do as parents. I also feel that it is one of the best things we can do for them. We must teach our children self-management skills. We also must teach them that the world isn’t allergy free. One day, they will be adults navigating an allergen-filled world without us planning their every move (and meal). We need to begin building their confidence to manage the diagnosis by empowering them in age appropriate ways. With proper prevention and preparedness, our children are free to learn, grow and experience everything that life (and school) has to offer.
For more tips and resources for sending your child with food allergies to school, visit FARE’s Back to School Online Headquarters.