It’s the beginning of the school year! Now is the perfect time to discuss best practices to keep kids with food allergies included in the classroom and beyond. What are the best ways to keep a child safe at school? How is teaching a food allergic child different from one without dietary restrictions? How can teachers and parents better communicate to ensure a productive year together?
One of the most difficult and important places to manage food allergies is at school. Parents, faculty, staff and administrators want and need to keep food allergic students physically safe during the school day – a place children spend the largest portion of their time outside the home. Inclusion at school is the “safe place” they need to develop psychologically and socially.
Where do schools begin and what factors should they consider?
Education: Not surprisingly, it all begins with EDUCATION. Faculty and staff should be educated and reeducated about food allergies each year. They should not only know:
- how to recognize the signs of severe allergic reactions (called anaphylaxis) and what those symptoms might sound like in the words of a young child
- how to react to an allergic reaction; and
- understand the basics of cross-contamination and ingredient label reading;
but they should also learn about the perspective of their food allergic students who experience anxiety and exclusion at higher rates than their peers.
I urge all schools to consider adding Food Allergy Education to their Health curriculum. Students are exposed to the idea of food allergies without understanding exactly what that means. Understanding food allergies is shown to build inclusion and community, stoke empathy and protect peers in students pre-K through high school. In less than 20 minutes, a teacher can cover a basic lesson plan on food allergies and reap all of the above benefits in his/her classroom for the entire year.
Eating In the Classroom: Parties, holiday celebrations, and special events should be as inclusive and safe as possible. I’ve heard from many families across the country whose children have been sent out of the room during class parties because their allergen was being served; children who are sent to eat with the school nurse instead of their friends; children who are told to stay away from the group who are eating an allergy-laden snack while they watch. When such a thing occurs, the message that student receives from their teacher is that their classmates’ enjoyment is more important than they are. At such times, the student will struggle with feeling of self-worth and the [correct] impression that their teacher doesn’t know how to handle food allergies.
Eating Outside of Class: Prepare for field trips by remembering food allergic students. Snacks and lunches need to be safe. And, don’t forget to bring emergency medication (and store it with a chaperone AT ROOM TEMPERATURE). The best way to keep these special learning experiences special is with advanced preparation and by communicating with parents and the students directly to address concerns and implement solutions.
Think through the full school day for an allergic student. How will they fare on the bus ride home? What is the school’s policy on eating on the bus? Is it enforced? Is the bus driver trained and prepared to deal with an allergic reaction? Is an allergic student allowed to carry their own epinephrine? How does the driver handle bullying on his/her bus? Addressing the entire school day from door to door will make a child with food allergies feel protected and looked after.
Bullying by Peers or Adults: Exclusion, name-calling or verbally doubting sets an example for the other students that such behavior is acceptable and results in stigmatizing the food allergic student. Bullying is another serious problem for all students but can have serious and even deadly results for students with food allergies. Read the statistics here to understand the scope of the problem which is often based at school.
Uninformed Teachers: Students with food allergies are savvy about their condition and quickly note when others aren’t as knowledgable. Teachers who demonstrate a lack of knowledge do not instill confidence in even the youngest food allergic child. Students who are concerned about surviving the day in their classroom, cannot learn. Creating “safe zones” is psychologically beneficial to students with food allergies. One such example is a peanut-free table or a classroom that bans a certain food for the health and protection of a student’s life. Another method is to establish a special line of communication between the teacher and student so they can express their concerns privately. I recommend that teachers meet with a food allergic student and their parents to acknowledge that they understand the parameters of that child’s allergy, that they take it seriously, and agree upon the best method of letting parents know about upcoming events so that the family can prepare.
Solid and Protected Food Allergy Policies: Schools must create a safe environment for students with life threatening food allergies. This protection begins with a comprehensive food allergy policy – one that balances safety with an emphasis on maximum inclusion. The policy and procedures regarding food allergies need to be widely communicated, easily accessible, consistently applied and protected.
[Read: Food Allergy Policies at School (Aug. 14, 2018) – Considerations and Perspectives for more on what goes into a well thought-out policy.]
Inclusion means everything to food allergic students who already feel different from their peers. Inclusion gives students a supportive platform from which to conquer the world. Schools need safe places for kids to learn, socialize and play. They are more than a place to grow academically; schools should be a space for students to blossom psychologically as well. A lot of thought should go into how to include every child in the classroom – it might make all the difference for your students AND their families.