One of my least favorite days of the year is the first day of school. Saying goodbye is hard enough. When your child has a food allergy/intolerance or medical condition it can add another level of worry and preparation for heading back to school. Here are some ideas, steps and tips that I’ve picked up over the years that have helped our family and can hopefully help yours.
1. Inform the teacher/school/school nurse of your child’s allergy/intolerance.
This one seems obvious and simple but I’ve been surprised at the different reactions I’ve gotten from teachers over the years. Some have jumped right in, communicated and always advocated for my child. Some are annoyed at having to worry about one more thing and can’t seem to be bothered by it; leaving the child, to advocate for themselves or go without when everyone else is having a treat.
So here are some tips to help deal with whatever type of reaction you get.
I usually introduce the topic before the first day of school at the classroom “Meet and Greet.” If your school doesn’t offer an introduction before school starts, call the school office and set up an appointment the week before. Most teachers start their school year a few days before the actual first day of school.
If you do meet at the crowded “Meet and Greet” I either talk to the teacher before it starts or close to the end when the crowd has fizzled out and we can talk for a moment in peace.
After the initial introduction I just dive right in and inform the teacher of my child’s diagnosis. I am about to give you a ton of information but sincerely this conversation with the teacher last about 5 minutes.
First identify the specific allergy (peanuts, gluten, dairy) and or diagnosis (celiac, gluten intolerance, lactose intolerance.)
Inform the teacher of the symptoms that occur with exposure to your child’s trigger food.
Having a printed pamphlet of the issue your child deals with to give to the teacher to read later might be helpful so they can review the information and educate themselves (Grab a few extra pamphlets next time you’re at your child’s doctor office.)
Once the basics have been discussed you can move on to potential hazards/exposure and when the teacher will need to be more aware of your child’s allergy/intolerance.
LUNCHTIME-Review with the teacher if any special accommodations need to be made. Such as eating at a peanut free table or washing hands with soap and water instead of antibacterial gel.
CLASSTIME-Discuss with the teacher what in the classroom needs to be avoided (if anything).
For example, my kindergartener’s class will be learning with play-doh(made with wheat flour) this year. So I’ll send in a gluten free version labeled for my child and she is the only one to touch it, to keep it from being contaminated. I then ask that my child’s table be wiped down after the table uses their Play-doh and that I am more than happy to provide the cleaning spray for the table.
Is food ever a part of the lesson (science experiment, healthy living lesson, etc?)
For lessons, class science experiments and rewards involving food I ask that the teacher reach out to me a few days in advance so I can have time to provide a gluten free/allergy free alternative for my child. If they would just text, call, email, send a carrier pigeon, I don’t care. Any form of communication is great, except for using my child to communicate. A pigeon is more reliable.
PARTY TIME-Are treats allowed? (Birthday treats, celebration/reward parties, class holiday parties etc.)
If these treats are allowed I then pull out my “just in case” treat box (a box full of fruit snacks, cookies, granola bars, M&M’s etc.) I ask the teacher if there is a high shelf out of the way that they can store this so that they will won’t have to worry about my child having something for the inevitable day a classmate’s mother brings in a birthday treat to share with the classroom.
I also include a sticker placed on the inside of the box with my child’s name, allergy/diagnosis and my name and contact information so my number is readily accessible to them to reach out with any questions. This box is also a good place to put the pamphlet of information in. The Gluten Intolerance Group has some great printer friendly handouts of information to help educate teachers and the school.
I also ask the teacher to please, please, please let me know it there will be a reward parties or celebration before they happen.
Even if the teacher forgets and remembers at 5:00 am that morning, please let me know and I will provide an alternative treat. To combat this last minute request and save me from baking at 11:00 pm the night before or 5:00 am the morning of, I’ve started to keep a batch of baked cupcakes in a freezer bag in the freezer along with a batch of sugar cookie and chocolate chip cookie dough that I can just put in the oven to bake. The only problem to this solution is not forgetting to restock the freezer if you cheat and eat the pre-made stash. The struggle is real.
When the class holiday party subject arises be prepared for the room parent question. It is inevitable and you can’t blame a teacher for trying. You are standing there talking about food and parties and have skin in the game. The teacher sees your position and thinks, “Why not kill two birds with one stone.” This is where he/she will float the idea of room parent. It’s not a bad idea. If you take the job you will have the benefit of being able to control the food narrative of all the parties. If you realize you would rather poke your eye out with a fork than become room parent, or merely don’t have time between your job and other responsibilities that’s okay too.
The alternative is to become immediate friends with the chosen room parent and swap cell phone numbers to keep lines of communication open so you can be sure your child has an allergy free option at the parties. Another option is to attend the party planning meetings to offer your input and assistance.
Either way be sure to reach out to the room parent a few weeks before the party to become informed of what the food plan. While you are making a cupcake or alternative treat for your child you can just share the whole batch with your child’s classroom.
This can be an emotional benefit for your child since this time their food isn’t different from everyone else’s food.
My children have been so excited to share their allergy free food with others and get compliments how they can’t even tell it’s gluten free. Honestly, it absolutely makes my kids day to share their food and not be different for the day.
3. Initiate/Review Plan of Action
As I’m talking to the teacher and we are evaluating my child’s needs I am also volunteering solutions/expectations that will meet the identified need. Usually the teacher will agree with the solution and we will figure out together how we will implement them as a team. For example, hand washing with soap vs. sanitizer gel. She’s now received 24 bottles of hand sanitizer for the year and I’m telling her that my little one needs to wash her hands with soap. In that case I will offer to send in hand soap every few months for my child to be able to wash her hands, if she will let me know when she is getting low on hand soap. Or as already mentioned the “just in case” box is provided as a solution when the topic of surprise treats comes up.
Treatment Plan-Should an exposure happen, inform them the symptoms to look for and needed treatment. This form from FARE is helpful for the teacher and school nurse to have on hand. You can also slip a completed form into the “just in case” box with the other information.
Involving the school nurse in this step is also imperative. Get to know your school nurse. Make her aware of the treatment plan. Besides your child’s teacher, the nurse will be one of the first responders taking care of your child if needed. Our school nurse knows my children by name and a relationship exists between my children and the nurse which bring a great deal of comfort to me. She also has my cell phone number and calls me with any questions.
4. Prepare your child
One of the surprises (for me at least) of having children with special dietary needs/restrictions is how they have quickly learned independence to advocate for themselves. Review in simpler terms what we have addressed above.
Include them in the plan and conversation with their teacher if they are old enough to follow along. If not have the conversation at home. Give them the power to be apart of their care. Especially while they are in a controlled environment with a safety net of adults, watching after them.
5. Follow-up with the teacher/school.
A lot of information has been communicated and it is easy for some to get lost in translation or mistakenly looked over weeks from now as the teacher is trying to implement everything in detail with her regular teaching routine.
Kindly check in, ask the teacher how she is doing, does she have any questions, need support or supplies of anything? Let him or her know you are supportive and willing to help. He/she is an advocate for your child but they might be new to this world and a little support can go a long way in helping them help your child.
Email or reach out a few weeks before holiday party time. Say mid-October if you’re unaware of the Halloween party/activity plan, just ask what you can bring as an alternate treat for your child. They will me more likely to remember and communicate with you for other times if you are frequently keeping in contact with them for the planned food events.
6. Communicate Gratitude and Appreciation
You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
These generous people have chosen to be with your kids up to 8 hours a day, often more time than we get to spend with our own child. They are responsible for 24 plus students. Remember the day when you received your child’s diagnosis. I’m a Registered Nurse trained to deal with these things and I was reeling and overwhelmed on diagnosis day. I knew the diagnosis was coming before they said it and I still had to take a day or two or five to let it sink in (Denial thinks we are friends.)
They may feel a piece of being overwhelmed when I walk in with my unexpected “just in case” box and a pamphlet with a load of details of my child health issues and how they need to change their classroom and routine in order to accommodate.
Especially since they just found out they have two other kids with different food allergies, a third child with a serious medical condition and then another child with a significant learning disability. Oh and they just found out they are sharing their teacher’s aide with 5 classrooms now instead of 3.
A kind smile and a sincere thank you definitely wouldn’t hurt this situation. I would honestly bear hug these people if it wouldn’t be completely awkward. I really would, but my husband tells me it would be too weird. So I give them a really, really big smile and ended up looking weird anyway.
That being said, if you aren’t feeling the love and you are receiving indifference and resistance from the school or teacher, go ahead and let your inner mama/papa bear roar. On the outside be kind, calmly persistent, and firm. Have the information/research printed out and at the ready to support your request to meet your child’s need. Hold strong until your child has the needed accommodation in place.
The 504 plan exist by law for this reason. I in the past haven’t initiated a formal one for my children. I haven’t felt the need because I have been blessed with wonderful teachers who do accommodate and change to fulfill my child needs once the need has been communicated.
If this is not your experience and/or you are concerned about the school not being compliant, the law is on your side and this 504 plan is there to support you. A support to hold the school accountable by law to openly communicate, accommodate and have an agreed upon action plan in place to protect and provide your child with a safe place for them to learn and give immediate treatment as needed.
You’ve got this Mom and Dad and with a little preparation and a lot of communication this transition can be an easy one.
For more tips, ideas and support here are some great links to some wonderful foundations that rally and fight for you and your child’s rights.
Know your rights. Here is an article from Allergic Living to inform and prepare you to advocate for your child.
Beyond Celiac has a toolkit that is amazing and definitely will help you navigate the back to school craziness.
The Gluten Intolerance Group has some great printer friendly handouts of information to help educate the teachers and school if needed.
A printable pamphlet from GI kids explaining Celiac Disease.
A another pamphlet explaining Celiac disease
Treatment plan form from FARE.
An awesome webpage by Kids with Food Allergies answering any question you could have!