It’s time to prepare for school with a food allergy and you may feel overwhelmed. When my son was ready for kindergarten, I remember the January prior to his entry was the month that I began conversations with my school on food allergy accommodations. With each new year, it causes me to think about how I can help families just like you prepare for the great meeting of the minds. I decided to do this series of posts: Prepare for School with a Food Allergy, Part 1, Food Allergy School and What Not To Do, Part 2 and What To Do When Your 504 Plan Is Violated, Part 3. I hope you find them to be helpful as you start a new chapter with your child.
10 Steps to Prepare for School with a Food Allergy
1. Investigate and Learn About Food Allergy Rights and Guidelines
Get to know the existing resources that are out there to support you:
- Check out the latest food allergy tool from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: Advocates’ Tool Kit, Making an Impact on Anaphylaxis.
- Does your state have food allergy guidelines in place?
- Does your district or school have an Anaphylaxis or Food Allergy Policy or Guideline in place?
- Review the Centers for Disease Control Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in Schools and Early Care and Education Programs.
- If your child is attending a public school, or a private school that receives federal funding, your child with food allergies may be eligible for a 504 Plan. Visit your state’s Board of Education website and see if you can download the 504 manual, find the section specific to food allergies.
2. It Takes Nine Months to Have a Baby; Take Nine Months to Forge a Food Allergy Partnership with Your School
To prepare for school with a food allergy, reach out the January prior to when your child will start school. Contact your school principal and district/school nurse/health paraprofessional to introduce yourself and your child. Make it a priority to discuss what school staff members will assist in the development of your child’s Food Allergy Management Plan. Collaborate with staff to finalize the plan prior to the first day of school.
- Typical 504 Team, i.e.: Principal, District and/or School Nurses, 504 Coordinator, Teacher, Specialists, Cafeteria and Recess Monitors, Transportation Company, etc. The titles of individuals will vary from district to district and school to school.
- If your school is public, request a 504 Evaluation Meeting.
- If your school is private, determine if the school receives any federal funding. If yes, then request a 504 Evaluation Meeting.
- If your school is private and receives no Federal funding, then request a Food Allergy Management meeting so accommodations can be determined.
3. Get Your Ducks in a Row
Now you’re ready to prepare for school with a food allergy with your first in-person meeting. Be sure to bring the below documents to the 504 Evaluation Meeting:
- Ask your allergist to write a letter detailing your food allergic child’s diagnosis and medical management recommendations, i.e., list of allergies, ingestion/inhalation/contact allergies; strict avoidance, asthma, etc. Request that your allergist communicate that there are necessary accommodations needed to keep your child safe.
- Get your Anaphylaxis Action Plan, Asthma Action Plan and Medication Administration Permission documents completed. These are all documents provided by your allergist.
4. Learn What “A Day in the Life” Is for Your Child
It’s so important to know “A Day in the Life” of a, i.e., kindergartener or subsequent grade. I grew up in a day when 2 ½ hours was kindergarten, which basically consisted of a nap, playtime and singing. : )
Life is much different now, especially when you prepare for school with a food allergy. While some of you may still be in ½ day kindergarten, many here in Minnesota are transitioning to all day kindergarten where learning to read, basic arithmetic, shapes, etc., are important everyday activities. On top of the heavier curriculum, navigating obvious and hidden allergens in the curriculum, classroom and school-wide celebrations, a snack and lunch are overwhelming essentials for five and six-year-olds with a food allergy.
Collaborate with school staff to learn the day-to-day activities for your child. It will assist you in understanding the necessary accommodations needed to keep your child safe, happy and included.
5. Evaluate What Are Necessary Food Allergy Accommodations
As you prepare for school with a food allergy, it’s very important that parents understand and separate what are our own fears are regarding our child being on his/her own at school, what accommodations will truly keep him/her safe and yet operate, as much as possible, in a normal capacity during the course of a school day. Here’s an example:
I once was asked if it was reasonable for the bus handle and seat to be wiped down with an antibacterial wipe prior to the child boarding the bus. What is the perceived risk of exposure compared to the actual risk of exposure and reaction? Yes, there may be allergens on the bus handle and seat from other children boarding the bus immediately post breakfast; however, here’s where we need to strike a balance of being able to function in daily life and what would be considered an unreasonable accommodation.
Let me clarify; this child with food allergies will get off the bus, walk to the school entrance, and grab the school door handle to enter the school. Our lives are constant balance of perceived risk and actual risk, because let’s be honest, there will always be a risk. Surely there are allergens (or worse) on the school door handle, restroom door handle, classroom door handle, water faucet handle, etc. Whether at school, camp, a friend’s house or a birthday party there is always a risk of something. How can we minimize the risk is always the question, i.e., hand washing. We have to teach our kids how to care for themselves and their health condition while also providing guidance to school staff on how to assist in the education and protection of children with food allergies.
Let me give another example…our son with food allergies is a third grader who was elected to Student Council. One of his responsibilities is to work at the school store approximately once a month with two other students. The school store opens 25 minutes prior to the start of the school day. There are no allergens present in the school store, just trinkets and trash items which kiddos at the elementary level love. Now…my son will come in contact with students arriving off of the buses, fresh from breakfast with hands that may or may not be washed. He will also be handling money, another filthy item. What are realistic accommodations for this activity? Outside of deciding how his emergency medication pack will be carried, nothing…our son is in third grade and the solution is that he will wash hands after working his shift at the store.
In summary, think about the accommodations that you are negotiating, it’s important to evaluate whether accommodations are practical. Play a game of “would you rather” in your head…Would you rather push for students to wash hands upon arrival and after lunch in the classroom? or Having the bus rail and seat wiped down prior to boarding? My answer would be the hand washing.
6. Get the Safe Snacks in Order
When you prepare for school with a food allergy, be sure to provide your school with as much information to set all those involved up for success, this includes providing a Safe Snack List.As you prepare for school with a food allergy, consider using Snack Safely as a resource to help compile your Safe Snack List.
- Assemble a Safe Snack List for your classroom. Ask your School Nurse if there are other students with food allergies in your child’s classroom. If yes, request to coordinate with those parents so that a comprehensive list can be provided to classroom parents.
- Put together a safe snack bin for your child. The contents can be used in case you forget to pack a snack for your child, for inclement weather or (heaven forbid) a lockdown.
- Consider providing the classroom with a stash of prepackaged snacks, in case parents accidentally pack an unsafe snack, so that your teacher can swap out an unsafe snack for a safe snack. Alternatively, your classroom teacher can ask parents to donate safe snacks to the classroom so that you do not shoulder the entire financial burden; most parents are happy to participate. Regarding a stash of prepackaged snacks: I’d only recommend this for kindergarten and perhaps first grade. Once you are in second grade and higher, not being able to partake of an unsafe snack, and doing without a replacement, is a natural consequence to this behavior. To assist in this not happening in the future, your teacher can send a friendly email or note to the parent along with the Safe Snack List.
7. Coach Your Child
While most of the responsibilities are shouldered by the school, your child is in the beginning stages of self advocacy. When you prepare for school with a food allergy, be sure to speak with your child, in an age appropriate way, about his/her responsibilities:
- Avoid allergens in food and projects.
- NEVER share or trade food with others.
- Contact an adult if they feel like he/she is having an allergic reaction.
- Share important accommodations with your child so that he/she can help you determine if his/her 504, IHP or Food Allergy Management Plan is being violated.
- Check in with your child frequently, but not neurotically, to ensure that their accommodations are being executed and that their 504 is not being violated. Encourage them to come to you as well. Open communication will ensure that he/she feels safe in the school environment.
8. Talk Yourself Off of the Ledge
Establishing the initial plan can be stressful and time consuming, be assured that the initial upfront investment will only ease the planning of future years. Why do I say this? As your child grows in age and maturity so will his/her responsibilities. Each phase of your child’s life has different challenges; right now it’s the importance of safety and caring for him/herself in an age appropriate way because they are young. Subsequent years in growth and maturity offers more responsibility and independence for your child and less dependence on your school, i.e., moving from your teacher carrying your child’s emergency medication pack to when your physician approves of your child self carrying, etc. When you prepare for school with a food allergy, remember that accommodations that are important to a child in kindergarten or first grade are not the same in third and fourth grade. Parents can help manage their stress by:
- Continue in Food Allergy Education and Management
- Keep organized
- Stay positive
- Heading back to my Italian roots, Forgetaboutit! When not dealing with food allergy planning, unplug, detach, disconnect from the planning, the people and L-I-V-E!
9. Hire a Consultant to Advocate and Carry the Load
When you prepare for school with a food allergy, you need to feel confident in the safety and inclusion of your child. You want to be a champion in advocating for your child; however, sometimes all of this sounds and feels overwhelming – it doesn’t have to be.
I assist parents and schools in the development of a tailored Food Allergy Management Plan that meets your child at his/her development and maturity level that slowly establishes the building blocks for self-advocacy. I can be involved in whatever capacity someone needs. Some parents want me involved from beginning to end and in every aspect of the process, including drafting the plan for your school. Others may need to a more cost-conscious approach, asking me to review and revise a plan written by parents and school or only want me to be involved in areas that require direct interaction with the school.
I see my role as one to uplift and guide parents and their families to look beyond food allergy limitations, and see collaborative opportunities and partnerships with those caring for your child.
Forging a partnership with your school can be an overwhelming undertaking, having a consultant or advocate lead the way is very reassuring both from the standpoint of having someone on your side and carrying the brunt of the load.
10. Keep the Lines of Communication Going
Check in with school staff regularly, especially your teacher. Those open discussions about school curriculum projects, seasonal activities, classroom and school-wide celebrations and field trips are where the obvious and hidden allergens are found.
Whew! There you have it, my Top 10 Tips. Happy Planning! Don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for the next in this series, Food Allergy School and What Not To Do, Part 2 and What To Do When Your 504 Plan Is Violated, Part 3.
I’ve shared my view with you; please leave a comment and share your thoughts with me.