For parents of children with food allergies, starting a new school year can seem daunting. As the mom of a daughter with celiac disease, I know how overwhelming food allergies are at times. To ensure a safe, positive school year that meets the needs of a food allergic child, follow these tips from moms and experts who’ve been there.
The best time to communicate with teachers is early in the school year, before classroom celebration policies are established for the year.
Build a Team
A team invested in supporting your child includes teachers, coaches and the school nurse. Tiffany Hinton, mom of three daughters with celiac disease and several food allergies, and founder of GF Mom Certified, meets with all teachers and the nurse at the beginning of each school year. She suggests supplying the nurse with necessary items such as EpiPens and allergy medication.
Do your Research
Newly diagnosed? Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) provides helpful resources to support families: www.foodallergy.org/life-with-food-allergies/managing-lifes-milestones/at-school
Put Requests in Writing
I write a letter every year that is shared with the teacher, school nurse, substitutes and all extracurricular staff : PE, art and music teachers. By providing information in writing, I ensure important details about my child’s needs are readily available to staff. My letter defines celiac disease and cross contamination, and includes my daughter’s specific symptoms and history. I also ask for accommodations that will help include my child and ensure her safety. I keep it positive by always thanking people in advance for all they do to keep her allergy-safe.
“Setting up and following through with a 504 plan is the best tool to keep the school staff informed of what your child needs,” says Julie Bradley, Carlsbad resident and secretary of National Celiac Association San Diego. To learn the basics about 504 plans and determine whether one is right for your child, visit the FARE website: www.foodallergy.org/sites/default/files/migrated-files/file/cdc-reducing-risk.pdf
Maureen Dempsey, Board Certified Educational Advocate in North County states, “Any child with a food allergy qualifies for a 504.” She advises parents to read section 504 on the U.S. Department of Education’s website and contact a local education advocate if needed. www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/504faq.html
Be Direct and Specific
Not all allergic reactions are the same. Be specific about your child’s reactions, whether they are life-threatening and require an EpiPen or are more hidden as is the case with celiac disease where, according to Bradley, obvious symptoms may not be exhibited, but internal damage may still occur.
Hinton finds it helpful to share a photo of how a past allergic reaction looked when it began to help educate the teacher.
Ask for What You Need
“Explain how you would best like to receive communication,” says Hinton. “I prefer an email or text message at least two days before an activity to ensure I have a safe [alternative] for my daughter.”
Bradley says teachers should avoid putting a child on the spot to read labels right before an activity. Label-reading requires keen attention to detail. Request that teachers always communicate with parents, even if a food seems safe. She also recommends educating staff about the importance of proper hand and desk washing.
I provide a list of kid-friendly, allergen-safe foods to room parents, and ask that alternative snacks from the list are incorporated into class parties. Keep a stash of cupcakes and donuts in the freezer to have on hand. Fill a special lunchbox with your child's favorite allergen-free snacks and keep it in the classroom.
Create a Culture of Awareness
FARE suggests speaking with teachers about the role of food in the classroom to help lower the risk of an allergic reaction. Perhaps non-food items and activities can be emphasized during cultural events and holiday traditions.
Hinton likes to share food-allergy books with elementary classrooms to spread awareness, such as Itchy Pig by Nicole Bruno Cox.
Teach Kids to Self-Advocate
Self-awareness is the most important element according to Hinton. Teaching young children what happens in the body when a reaction occurs and how it presents itself helps them begin to understand allergies.
“Empower your child to understand what is safe to eat, and why and how to speak up if another child wants to trade or share food,” says Hinton.
Make Lunchtime Safe and Enjoyable
- Use a separate table at school to help avoid cross-contamination or trading food.
- Have kids help choose fun, colorful lunchboxes, placemats and containers.
- Before school starts, stock the pantry and bake freezable, allergen-free snacks and reheatable breakfast favorites.
- Teach older kids to grocery shop.
- Cook whenever possible.
Cherie Gough is a local writer with extensive knowledge about gluten-free food, restaurants and travel.