Watching your kid start elementary school can be an emotional roller coaster of a milestone. For parents whose children have allergies, it can be even more fraught—on top of navigating new classes, new faces, and new teachers, your kid has to take extra precautions to stay safe at school.
While the thought of your kid having an attack at school when you’re not there can be scary enough to take your breath away, the good news is that your child’s school will most likely take her allergies very seriously and be willing to work with you to develop a plan to keep her safe. Here are a few steps you can take to make a plan to manage food allergies at school.
Reach out to your child’s school.
Before the school year kicks off, contact the school and provide them with a copy of your child’s food allergy and anaphylaxis emergency plan, recommends Lisa Gable, the CEO of nonprofit organization Food Allergy and Research Education (FARE).
What exactly is this? Essentially, it’s a document that clearly details a) your child’s allergens, b) his symptoms, c) treatment plan, and d) is signed by his doctor or allergist. You may also want to include a photo of your child, as well as note any other conditions (such as asthma) that he or she may have. Not sure exactly what it should look like? You can download a template from FARE here. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) publishes a similar template that’s also available to download.
“Managing food allergies at school involves a team, including the school nurse, your child’s teachers, administrators, cafeteria staff and bus drivers,” Gable says. “It’s a good idea to meet in person with at least the school nurse and your child’s teacher in advance so that they understand what precautions must be taken and which allergens must be avoided.”
Hae-Young Song, MD, allergist at Loma Linda University, agrees and adds that it’s also wise to meet with the school’s principal. The most important thing is to make sure that everyone who needs to be is looped into those conversations as early as possible.
Involve your kiddo in the discussion, too.
Gable notes that your child is, ”part of the team and should know what the emergency procedures are and what to do if they experience symptoms.”
Song says the conversation with your kid should be “ongoing.” It’s important that your kid feels comfortable recognizing foods that are safe (or unsafe), reading labels, and using her epinephrine autoinjector (the most common of which is an EpiPen).
RELATED: Read our EpiPen 101
One of the best parts of elementary school (besides learning new things) is getting to celebrate a holiday or someone’s birthday—but most often it includes a sweet treat, like cookies or cupcakes. To ensure that your kid and others with allergies aren’t left out of the fun, Gable suggests providing your child’s teachers with fun, allergy-safe treats to have on hand.
“A good general rule for schools to follow is to exclude the food, not the child,” she adds.
A few fun non-food ways to celebrate special milestones, courtesy of FARE, include: goody bags with toys, “no-homework passes,” stickers, or providing time for extra recess, games, or arts and crafts.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also recommends that schools stay away from providing known allergens as treats or rewards or as part of science experiments, arts and crafts, class parties, birthdays, and more, noting that they should work with staff to “create a safe environment for students with allergies,” and double- and triple-check that any foods they provide are safe.
Pack lunches ahead of time if possible.
However, if you know there are going to be days where you don’t have time to pack a lunch (no shame in that!), talk to your school’s cafeteria workers about how they might be able to accommodate your little one. Dr. Song notes that nowadays, most schools don’t use peanut or tree nuts in school lunches. However, “students with wheat, soybean, egg, or dairy allergy should avoid all prepared foods as these are common food ingredients and difficult to avoid,” he says. “These students may consider fruit or vegetable options if prepared with ingredients with no risk for cross-contamination.”
The common thread running through these tips? Communication. Communicating early and often with your child’s school will ensure that everyone is on the same page and well-prepared in case of an attack. And remember, your child’s school wants the same thing that you do: a high-quality education in an environment that’s safe and fun. So don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself or your kiddo.