The start of the school year can be an exciting time: the smell of fresh pencils and crayons, recess with friends, and new ideas to learn. As a parent, it is important to focus on and encourage excitement in your child with the new school year. This, however, can be very difficult for families with food allergies.
As a child born with severe food allergies, I am happy to share that I made it from kindergarten to graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Child Development without a single allergic reaction in school.
I am grateful to have grown up with a dad that always encouraged excitement for school (every year telling me that the first day of school should be my favorite day of the year), and a mom who did not miss any detail to keep me safe and capable of protecting myself at school.
I now want to share 6 tips that helped me navigate through school safely with severe food allergies. Please feel free to comment with any other tips that you may have!
- Schedule a meeting with teachers and administrators. Before school started every year, my mother would schedule a meeting with my new teacher, and any other school staff to explain my allergies. At these meetings, my mom would bring the tester EpiPen and teach the teachers how to use it, as well as let them practice with expired EpiPens on oranges. You can also show the teachers how to read labels for allergens, and more. As parents, you are the only expert on your child and their allergies, so you need to pass on that information to the teacher that will be responsible for your child for almost 40 hours per week. Try not to end the meeting until both you and the teacher feel comfortable. You can also bring any handouts, a 504 plan (if you have this), and any other documents that you feel would be helpful.
- Reserve an allergy-friendly table. Throughout elementary school and junior high school, I had a designated “nut-free” table that I would sit at every day for lunch. Especially in elementary school, children that do not have allergies are rarely aware of the severity of allergies, or what they really are eating. Having a designated table kept me safe at school. For my peers to sit with me, they would have to have their lunches checked by a staff member to make sure that their lunches did not contain any allergens. I was fortunate to have friends that would sit with me at lunch, and had their parents pack safe lunches for them – so I did not feel isolated by being at a separate table.
- Make a “safe snacks” box for the classroom. Even though your child may not need to use this throughout the school year, it is nice to have a box set aside with safe snacks or treats for your child. You can bring this either on the first day of school, or at your teacher meeting. Especially in elementary school, parties, celebrations, and holidays seem to occur more often than not, and you do not want your child to feel left out.
- Have some informational handouts to pass out to your child’s peers, parents, and other staff. There are so many resources online that help to explain food allergies, share tips on keeping kids safe, etc. Find some that you like and pass them out to parents, peers, or anyone else your child may come in contact. I feel that it is better to over-explain and prepare than not provide enough information. You can also click here to print out a form that I created that explain allergies and tips to help keep the allergic child or adult safe.
- Teach your child to be safe. This, of course, will depend on the age of your child and how severe their allergies are. Some helpful things to teach your child to keep them safe include washing their hands with soap and water after touching food or allergens, reading food labels, or just saying “no thank you” when they are offered food or snacks that they are not sure of.
- Keep open communication with your child. After the school day is over, continue to have open communication with your child about their allergies. Ask your child if they enjoy eating their lunch, who eats lunch with them, if they eat any food in the classroom, and if they have any negative interactions regarding their allergies. In third grade, we had a new student, and she began bullying me for my food allergies. She would always try to push her peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my face, and threaten to touch me with it. Thankfully, I told my mom about the bullying, and she had a meeting with the teacher and student, and the bullying stopped.
I pray that your child has a safe and wonderful school year – and that these tips will help to put you at ease as you let your little one out into the world!