Starting a new school can be so exciting. But it can also be daunting if you have a child with food allergies. For some parents, this is the first time your child will be given food without your supervision. And for others, it’s a point of transition to a new system for handling food allergies. In both cases, it can be stressful. But there’s a way to ease those nerves. Here’s how I would recommend handling everything to start your child’s year off right.
Understand Protocol: First of all, talk to the school about your child’s food allergies and how they handle food allergies in general. It’s important to understand the standard procedures they have in place.
Store Emergency Medications: Next, get a refill on your child’s EpiPens and keep them in their original packaging (most schools require this). Keep two EpiPens at school (I kept ours in the classroom or at the nurse’s office) along with Children’s Benadryl. Make a list of your child’s triggers and made a note of any symptoms he may have experienced to inform the teacher about his reactions. In some cases, I didn’t know what my son’s reaction might be (thank goodness) so I deferred to my son’s pediatrician and allergist to give me a list of general reactions to look out for.
Ensure Safe Snack and Lunchtime: Arrange a time to speak to your child’s teacher about snack and lunch. Understand the process and how to work within it. In my son’s case, the school provided snacks. This originally horrified me. I was uncomfortable about having the school give him snacks that I didn’t choose, but didn’t want him to feel left out if everyone was eating graham crackers and he was having rice cakes. Thankfully, the school had a set snack list. And, my son’s teacher took me through their snack closet and let me read the ingredients of every snack they provided. Turns out he could safely eat eight of the ten snacks they regularly provided. The teacher made a note of the two unsafe snacks and we agreed to substitute with a safe alternative on those days.
-OR- Leave a bag of safe snacks in the classroom for your child to choose from each day if that’s easier. Your child would probably be just as happy with that if you load up the safe snack bin with his/her favorites. Ask the teacher to let you know when you need to refill.
Prepare for Special Occassions: Ask the teacher to alert you when in-class birthdays will be celebrated as well as any food-related holidays (think Halloween, Valentine’s Day, etc). I send in a SAFE alternative on those days or keep one in class depending on the class/teacher (and it doesn’t have to be cupcakes! For example, my son loves Golden Oreos and considers them a special treat). But the teacher NEEDS to keep you posted on that stuff or it can result in a lot of disappointment. **I would also make yourself available to parents who are planning these parties if they need safe snack suggestions.**
Inform and Practice Social Situations for Food Safety: Now’s a great time to talk to your child/refresh her knowledge about her food allergy in some basic terms. It’s a good time to check out the books recommended here: Food Allergy Books For Young Children and here: Helping Toddlers Understand Their Nut Allergies. Arm him/her with some words to politely decline sharing offers and remind him to ask his teacher if he’s not sure of the safety of something. Have your child practice with you so they feel more comfortable using these techniques at school.
Educate Peers: Offer to inform the other students in your child’s class about food allergies. Educating your child’s peers will empower them to keep him/her safe as well. Many kids have no experience with food allergies at all. Bring in a book about food allergies along with a safe snack for everyone to share. Let them ask questions and let your child help answer some of those questions. My son’s classmates were so supportive once they understood he couldn’t always share the snacks provided. In several instances, his close friends offered to eat some of his safe snacks in solidarity with him during class parties. And, by the way, nearly all of his pals now love Golden Oreos as a result. And some classmates, will ask their parents NOT to pack peanut butter/nuts so they can safely sit next to my son at lunch. How wonderful!
I hope my on-the-ground experience helps alleviate a little of those back-to-school jitters and gives you some ideas of how to proceed at your school. I was nervous at first when my son began school, but it’s been great — allergies and all!