Having a child with a severe food allergy can be nerve-racking, especially when you have to send them to school. But don’t despair! You can help school administrators and staff members learn how to manage food allergies at school. Get started by sharing fact-based information, demonstrating proper use of your child’s epinephrine auto-injector, and voicing your questions and concerns. You can also help your child learn to protect themselves.
Connect with Your Child’s Teacher and Principal
Allergy policies are different from one state and school district to another. The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), a national non-profit organization, notes that it’s vital for parents to understand how their child’s school approaches food allergies. You’ll want to learn the specific steps they take to keep allergic students safe.
Start by arranging a meeting with your child’s teacher, principal, and school nurse before the first day of school. This time is an opportunity for you to learn about the school’s allergy policy and share information about your child’s allergies. Bring with you:
- Copies of your child’s Food Allergy Action Plan. You can develop this document with your child’s doctor for emergency situations. The action plan should have information about your child’s allergies, emergency treatment steps, and an emergency contact person. Copies of their plan should be posted in places where school staff can see it in the case of an allergic reaction.
- One or more epinephrine auto-injectors (e.g., EpiPen®), containing life-saving medication. These auto-injectors should be stored in an unlocked place. This allows school staff to quickly grab them in the case of an allergic reaction.
- One or more epinephrine auto-injector training devices, which you can use to teach your child’s teacher and principal. This will better equip them to use a real epinephrine auto-injector in the case of an emergency.
- Fact-based information about allergies from a reliable source. Include tips for avoiding allergens and recognizing and treating an allergic reaction.
- Allergy-safe snacks, which your child can enjoy during classroom parties or other times when unsafe food is shared. Your child’s teacher can store these snacks in their desk.
You may find that your child’s teacher and principal are already well-informed and supportive. Or you may need to work with them further to develop the skills and strategies needed to keep your child safe.
Keep Your Expectations Realistic
No school can be completely allergen-free. There are simply too many people coming and going from a school every day. Recognizing that accidents can happen is an important part of developing an effective allergy policy. This should take into account the school’s unique community and environment, including:
- The number and age of students
- The number and type of allergies represented
- The location and lay-out of areas where students eat
- The level of support available from staff, volunteers, and parents
Once an allergy policy is in place, the school should communicate and enforce that policy in its community. This should include staff, volunteers, students, and parents. If its allergy policy lacks support or is difficult to monitor, it may be ineffective.
When working with your school to develop an allergy policy, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. For example, some schools decide to ban specific allergens from school property or certain classrooms. Other schools decide to allow allergens, but take steps to reduce the risk of exposure.
Discuss Different Strategies
Whether or not your school bans specific allergens, you can help your child’s teacher and principal develop strategies to keep allergic students safe. For example, discuss the following options:
- Create a “no sharing” rule for food, dishes, and utensils
- Have students clean their hands, tabletops, and desks before and after eating
- Place food on trays or mats to contain spills and limit the risk of cross-contact
- Replace food-based treats and rewards with stickers or extra playtime
- Avoid allergenic craft supplies, such as pinecones, egg-based paints, or wheat-based glues
- Keep an epinephrine auto-injector available at all times, including recess, lunch, and fieldtrips
Once you agree upon a set of strategies, follow-up with your child’s teacher and principal to make sure they are put into action. If you learn that strategies are not being practised, calmly but firmly explain your concerns. Remember, change takes time and mistakes can happen.
Teach Your Child to Self-Protect
No child with food allergies should feel alone or unsupported. But learning to self-protect is an important part of growing up. Help your child learn how to manage food allergies at school, by teaching them to:
- Wash their hands before and after eating
- Avoid sharing food, dishes, and utensils with other people
- Read ingredient lists and food labels with the help of a trusted adult
- Teach friends and classmates about their allergies
- Get help when they feel sick, uncomfortable, or unsafe
- Carry an epinephrine auto-injector, if age-appropriate, and learn how to use it
Experts recommend that children begin carrying their own auto-injectors around age six or seven, or as soon as they are mature enough. No child should be expected to treat an allergic reaction without help. However, teaching them how to carry and use epinephrine from a young age helps to prepare them for allergic emergencies later in life.
HealthAhead Hint: You Are Not Alone!
It can be difficult to send your child off to school, especially when they have a potentially life-threatening allergy. But you are not alone! You can help your child’s teacher, principal, and school nurse learn how to manage food allergies at school. You can also teach your child to self-protect, by giving them the skills to avoid and treat an allergic reaction. With proper care and attention, it is possible for children with food allergies to attend school safely.