Monday, February 11, 2008

Preparing for Kindergarten

It’s the time of year to start thinking about registering 5-year-olds for kindergarten. What a scary, exciting, scary – did I mention scary? – time. And as if it weren’t scary enough, if your child has a food allergy, it’s just that much … um… scarier. (Where’s my thesaurus?) A woman on the UFAN forum asked for advice on easing her son into kindergarten. Several people answered her, and it seemed like a great topic for my blog, so here’s my two cents’ worth.

My son is in 3rd grade now, and he and his best friend have been at the same school since kindergarten and they haven't had any anaphylactic reactions at school. (Knock on wood!) We’ve been lucky, but we’ve also worked hard to prepare ourselves. You can’t completely eliminate the risk of a reaction at school, but there are lots of things you can do to minimize the risk and prepare yourself to handle it if it happens despite your best efforts.

1. Volunteer a lot, so the staff knows you and counts on you (not just for allergy issues). If the only time they see you is when there's a food allergy, then you may start feeling like they're whispering "Oh no, here she comes again." But if they see you as a "Gosh, what would we do without her" kind of volunteer, then the occasional food issue will be coming from a great mom who's making a reasonable request.

2. Becoming the class mom lets you both coordinate and participate in all special events, parties, and field trips, which gives you a lot more control over food choices at those events. If someone else is already the class mom, or you can't volunteer for that position, tell the teacher you really need to attend all parties and field trips because of the food allergy. The teacher may want to let the other parents know that you'll be selected for all the special events because of the food allergy, so that they don't think the teacher is playing favorites or something.

3. Ask the principal if there are other food allergic kids in kindergarten, and if they can possibly be assigned to the same teacher. That makes it easier for the allergic parents to trade off field-trip and party chaperone duties if necessary, it puts all the kids in the same class so that the classroom can be more allergen-free, and gives you some backup in food issues. (It's nice to NOT be the only one.) Statistically, about one in twenty kids has a food allergy, so chances are good there will be more kids than just your child in his grade.

4. Volunteer to buy all the snacks or food materials for classroom parties or food educational units (like making noodle necklaces or gingerbread houses, etc.). Usually the teacher has to buy these or request donations. So tell her if she'll collect money donations, you'll go buy all the ingredients. They're usually delighted to get out of having to shop.

5. If he's going to be having lunch at school, talk to the Lunch Lady and cafeteria monitor. Introduce your child, tell her what your child is allergic to, and let your child know that the Lunch Lady is a friend that will help keep him safe. Then remember the Lunch Lady and the cafeteria monitor on holidays with little thank you cards or gifts to show you appreciate them. Few people do that. But it will help keep your child's food issues fresh in their mind, and they'll get to know him well.

6. Ask about setting up a food table in the cafeteria just for allergic kids. The table has a sign that says allergies only, and the cafeteria monitors clean it with a separate marked bucket and cloth.

7. Make several copies of your child’s Food Allergy Action Plan and have the office staff post one in the office, give one to the lunch lady, and have the teacher post one inside her closet door or elsewhere in the classroom, so that your child's photo and "What to do in case of a reaction" instructions are handy no matter where he is. The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) has a great Plan on their website here. Just have your child’s allergist fill it out and take it to school.

8. Practice with your son what he should do if he "feels funny." Role-play and pretend you're the teacher, and have him come up and tell you what's wrong. Often our kids are too shy about asking for help, so have him practice with you, and with the teacher if possible. Not only does that give your son words to use if something happens, but it helps impress upon the teacher how important it is.

9. I get on my principal's staff meeting agenda at the first of the year and give a 5-minute talk about allergies and demonstrate the EpiPen. I also give a presentation to my son's class, and all the teachers and aides he comes into contact with. If you're not comfortable doing this, ask if there are other allergic parents that you can contact. Talk to them about ways to teach the teachers -- maybe another mom would be willing to give the presentation if you get copies made of some information, or something like that. It's easier when there are two or more of you involved, trust me!

10. Remember your son can legally carry his EpiPen with him. But he probably can't administer it to himself in an emergency, so make sure the teacher and everyone else know where it is and how to use it. My son carries his in his backpack so that it's always in the classroom, and I also fill a second prescription and they keep it in the office. So he has two sets at school.

11. Be aware and be prepared, but don't panic! Kindergarten is going to be a lot of fun, and your child will do just fine. And believe it or not, so will you!

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