Outside the Bubble: Keeping Your Food-Allergic Children Safe When You Send Them to School
As an Early Childhood educator and mother of two energetic boys in preschool and 7th grade, I have spent a lot of time over the past 15 years talking to parents about their hopes and dreams (and even fears) for their young children as they try to find the perfect school in which to grow them into life-long learners. Among the top five things that they list as the most important factors in choosing the right fit, are that their child will be known and that they will be loved. It should come as no surprise in today’s world that also making the list is that their child be safe. This takes on a whole new meaning for parents of a child with allergies.
Children spend 40 hours or more a week outside of the protective bubble of their home during the school year; hours when their parents have to trust that they are being cared for by teachers and professionals who have not only their child’s education in mind, but also their health and safety. As a mother myself, I can imagine how nerve wracking this must be for a parent of a child with life-threatening allergies. According to kidswithfoodallergies.org, more than three million children in the United States have food-related allergies. With that in mind, here are some tips to help you lessen the worry by creating a knowledgeable, caring community for your child at school:
1. Prevention starts at home. Create a Food Allergy Action Plan (FAAP) with your child’s primary health-care provider or allergy specialist that details the allergy and medication program, and provides informed consent and contact numbers for parents, guardians and health care providers. Be sure to review this with your child’s medical team at least once a year to make sure that all information is accurate and up to date. Parents should share this plan with the school nurse, the classroom teacher and the principal before the first day of school each year.
2. Provide the school with any device (such as an EpiPen) or medication (such as Benadryl) that is required per your child’s FAAP. Make to check their expiration dates to ensure that they will be viable for the school year.
3. Ask about faculty training with regard to administration of medication or EpiPens for students with allergies. More often than not, it will be a classroom teacher who is the first responder for your child if they suffer an allergic reaction. Many times, the school nurse will provide response training and an explanation of the signs of allergic episodes to the faculty who will be in contact with your child. This may occur during the traditional opening of school meetings and professional development. If this is not part of the school’s preparation for the start of the year, offer to bring in a professional to address this for the faculty in a short presentation where they can also ask questions such as “What do I do when…”.
4. Ask teachers to discourage food sharing and to encourage all students to wash their hands before and after eating. Keep in mind that hand sanitizers do not get rid of allergens.
5. Provide your child’s teacher with some non-perishable “safe” snacks to keep in a teacher cabinet. This ensures that if there is an unplanned celebration in the classroom, your child will have a special treat too. Remind your child never to accept food from classmates and never to eat something if he or she doesn’t know if it is safe. This may mean only eating foods you packed from home or you have approved.
6. Be aware of non-food items that may contain allergens, including art supplies. For example, wheat products are used to make Play-Doh.
7. Talk to your child often about their allergy. Calmly review the things they are allergic to and what signs and symptoms they might have if they are experiencing an allergic reaction. Itchy tongues and tingly lips may seem funny to a young child at first, but they need to know that they should tell a teacher or an adult about these warning signs right away.
Educating your child, their school community and friends about their allergies can be a fun experience as well. There are some great story books about children with allergies called The No Biggie Bunch by Heather Mehra, and a funny animal series by Nicole Smith that includes: Allie the Allergic Elephant: A Children’s Story of Peanut Allergies and “Cody the Allergic Cow: A Children’s Story of Milk Allergies and Chad the Allergic Chipmunk: A Children’s Story of Nut Allergies which can help everyone to understand that just because your child has an allergy, they are no different from their friends in how they play and learn. Offer to be a parent reader for the class at the beginning of the year, or share a book basket with books such as these with your child’s teacher.
Lastly, your little learner may be self-conscious about his or her allergy. It can be upsetting to be “different” from other children. There are some very cool and fun ways for kids to acknowledge their allergy. Bracelets, temporary tattoos, tags for their lunch boxes and more can make them feel special in a positive way. Here are two links to some of my favorites:
Sending your child out into the world can sometimes be an intimidating thing for parents, but it doesn’t have to be. By using tips like these, and by creating a partnership with your child’s teachers and school, you can lessen your anxieties and help to provide them with a wonderful and safe learning environment.