As summer ends and school heads back into session, you may be concerned about what to do if your child has a food allergy. While all schools handle food allergies slightly differently, there are some common themes. It’s important to have a plan in place and make sure that everyone is on board, including your child.
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Empower Your Child
If this is your child’s first experience with school, this may be the first time they are managing their food allergies as well. It’s important that they fully understand food allergy basics. Daniel Tiger has an episode on food allergies that you can use if your child is younger to help explain the concept of food allergies.
Explain that some foods can make them sick and so they must be careful when eating food. Make sure they know which foods they are allergic to. Also review with them how to properly describe an allergic reaction. You may know exactly what to look for, but it may not be as obvious to others. Often kids will use language that can be confusing to other adults, so it’s important to teach your child to state clearly that they think they are having an allergic reaction and need help.
Eventually, kids should know how to read food labels and administer epinephrine as needed. This probably won’t be possible for a kindergartner, but it’s something you can work up to.
Food Allergy 504 Plan
If your child is in public school, you can submit a 504 plan. It outlines accommodations, aids, or services that your child needs to use and fully participate in appropriate education. Your child’s doctor will be able to provide the medical form and your child’s school will be able to provide the accomodations.
Depending on the age of your child, and the specific food or foods your child is allergic to, the accommodations may vary. Often parents are more involved as a child is younger and the child will need to take more control as they get older.
Start With the Principal
If possible, start with the principal. Often times they have plans in place for food allergies already. You can review their plan and make any recommendations that you think may be necessary. Remember that you know your child best.
It’s always best to get as much communication as possible in writing, in case you ever need to refer back to it later. Your child will probably be attending the same school for several years, so it’s easy to forget details over time.
Meet the Team
There will be so many people involved in caring for your child at school. The more involved you are and the more you get to know the key players, the better the outcome will be. Make sure to meet the school nurse, administrative staff, coaches, lunch monitors, etc. Anyone who will be interacting with and supervising your child.
Make sure that everyone is aware of and comfortable with the plan, in case there ever is an accidental exposure. While the most likely place is the lunchroom, an exposure could happen anywhere. All the adults should know what to do, where the epinephrine is, and who will be giving it.
You may also want to meet the school psychologist. Having a food allergy can be extremely stressful, so knowing that your child has someone they can talk to about it can be helpful. Make sure that your child knows how they can find them if they need to talk.
Pause and Breathe
If there ever is an incident at school, take a moment to pause and breathe before contacting the school. Remember that in most cases, everyone was doing their best and accidents do happen. It’s impossible for staff to watch every child for every second of the day (which is why my first tip was to empower your child).
It is completely appropriate to be upset, but you may be able to make more meaningful change in the future if you approach the situation after processing instead of in the moment.
If your child’s school allows kids to bring in treats for holidays and birthdays, it can be helpful to provide your child’s teacher with a bag of allergy safe alternatives to offer. This way your child’s teacher isn’t responsible for figuring out if the food contains a potential allergen (which can be difficult in the moment) and your child isn’t told that they have to miss out because of their allergy. Having a bag of shelf stable treats that your child’s teacher can offer instead makes the situation a win-win for everyone.
Remind your child’s teacher that wherever your child goes, their epinephrine goes as well. Even if the plan doesn’t include eating food, you never know when a child will be exposed to an allergen. The teacher, or another adult, should be comfortable administering epinephrine in case it is needed.
Share with the Class
If your child gets to do a show and tell at some point in the year, use this as an opportunity to teach their friends about food allergies! Your child can share about their food allergy: what food they are allergic to, what happens when they eat it, what foods may be hiding it, etc. An older child may even be able to demonstrate how to administer an epi pen using a trainer and an orange.
Your child could also use their allergy in the science fair. Allergies are complex and showing how they work would make for a cool science project. This is also a great way for classmates to learn about allergies and that they can be life threatening and not a joke.
Seek a Mentor
Your child is probably not the first child with a food allergy at the school. See if you can find another parent who has been through this before and talk with them. What did they do? What would they recommend? Would they do anything differently? You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
Krystyn Parks is a Registered Dietitian and Lactation Consultant who specializes in feeding children. She has a Master’s Degree in Nutritional Science from California State University Long Beach. She is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and has been registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration since 2013.