School is just around the corner, which means now is a great time to prepare your food-allergic kidlets for a safe and fun year. Although it may seem scary, it’s entirely possible to help your child have a good experience in a school environment. It requires some preparation, good communication with your school administrators and teachers, a positive “we’re all on the same side” approach, and some commitment to go that extra mile for safety, but it can be done. My son and his best friend (also allergic) have successfully navigated their K – 9th grade years at a wonderful charter school where the administration and teachers welcomed us. Sure, we had a few bumps along the road, but overall, the journey was successful and both made it through all 10 years without a major reaction at school. Awesome, right? Now they’re starting high school (yikes) at separate schools (double yikes), so we’ll keep our fingers crossed. But at least we know how far we’ve already come, so that’s good news.
About this time every year I post my back-to-school tips. So I’ll repeat them here, in the hopes that they help smooth the way for other parents over the next few weeks. Good luck, and enjoy these remaining few weeks of summer!
(Remember, there are links to several school-related resources on the Utah Food Allergy Network's website, so be sure to check those out. And last week I posted my Back-To-School Food Allergy Shopping List, so you might want to look at that, as well.)
- Ask the principal if there are other food-allergic kids in the same grade, and if they can be assigned to the same teacher. That makes it easier for the parents of the allergic kids to trade off field-trip and party chaperone duties, reminds the teacher to keep the classroom allergen-free for multiple kids, 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 several food-allergic kids in your school.
- Make several copies of your Food Allergy Action Plan (available on FARE’s website) and ask to hang one in the office, the cafeteria kitchen, and 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.
- Practice with your child 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 child words to use if something happens, but it helps impress upon the teacher how important it is. If he or she has a friend in class that can help, ask them to role-play, too. Our boys have a friend who was very vocal in supporting and helping speak up for them when they were shy. (Girls are especially awesome as allies!)
- I get on my principal's staff meeting agenda at the first of the year and give a 15-minute talk about allergies and demonstrate the EpiPen or Auvi-Q. When my son was in elementary school, I also gave 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 make the photocopies. It's easier when there are two of you involved! There are also DVDs made for elementary school presentations, so you can let the DVD do the talking! “Binky Goes Nuts” is an Arthur cartoon from PBS. “Alexander the Elephant Who Couldn’t Eat Peanuts Goes to School” used to be available from FAAN before they became FARE, but now I can only find used copies on places like Amazon.
- Remember, in Utah, your child can legally carry his EpiPen or Auvi-Q. But he probably is not capable of administering it to himself in an emergency, so make sure the teachers and everyone else know where it is and how to use it. Because both EpiPen and Auvi-Q are available right now for $0 copay, get a pair for the school office, and a second pair to keep with the child (in his backpack or lunch bag, usually). You might also attach a luggage tag with his photo on it to his backpack, so the teacher can tell which backpack is his quickly.
- 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.
- Ask about setting up a food table just for allergic kids. All that’s required is a table with a sign that says allergies only, and the cafeteria monitors clean it with a separate marked bucket and cloth. Don’t let them make your child eat in a separate room or the principal’s office. He shouldn’t be punished or isolated just because he’s allergic to some foods! Ask the principal to mention the allergy table in a newsletter or other information that goes home with kids at the beginning of the year. You may find other kids with allergies expressing an interest in sitting at the table if they know it’s available.
- Ask the parents of your child’s friends to send safe lunches with them every once in a while, so they can eat with your child. Make it a fun place to be!
- Most peanut-allergic kids don’t react to the smell of peanut butter in the air, but a few do. If you are worried if your child will react to the air in the cafeteria, ask to take him in for a “practice run.” Sit in the cafeteria for half an hour and see if he reacts. If he doesn’t, cross that worry off your list.
- Eat lunch with him for the first few days. That will reassure both of you that you can both handle this!
- Talk to the teacher about which cafeteria door your child should use to avoid peanut butter contact (usually the one furthest from the playground), where to put his lunch bag after lunch, and where his EpiPens will be.
- Remind your child NOT to throw away his lunch trash. Tell him to bring it home in his lunch bag, so that he can avoid using the trash can. If another kid slam-dunks a half-full milk carton in the trash can, you don’t want your milk-allergic child to get splashed.
- Medical alert jewelry can help remind teachers and other staff about your child’s allergy. Lots of companies now provide medical alert jewelry in styles ranging from classic metal bracelets to fashionable plastic jewelry or even cool fabric sports bands (like at American Medical ID). Use your favorite search engine to find a style your child will enjoy wearing.
- If your schedule allows, 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 issue, 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.
- 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.
- Volunteer to shop for all the snacks or food materials for classroom parties or food educational units (like making noodle necklaces or gingerbread houses, etc.). Tell the teacher if she'll collect money donations, you'll go buy all the ingredients. They're usually delighted to get out of having to shop, and it lets you ensure the ingredients are safe.
- Be aware and be prepared, but don't panic! School is going to be a lot of fun, and your child will do just fine. And believe it or not, so will you!