Pencils and backpacks and how fun Mrs. Smith may or may not be is all they’ll talk about lately. It’s back to school time and kids are excited about the new year and new adventures, but food allergy parents have their minds elsewhere. Sure, it’s exciting to see our kiddos go off into the great big world, but holy cow – it’s also nerve-wracking as well!
We have been fortunate enough to have our oldest be free of food allergies (as far as we know), so she’s the one paving the way through school for little brother. At only two years of age, our little big guy is just starting “Memmie School” – our version of home school preschool. Right now, we can’t even fathom him heading off to “big kid school.” Fortunately, we have some really great role models that have walked in our shoes and figured out how to thrive along the way. Like our friend, Elizabeth, a former teacher and mom of two FA kids. Elizabeth shares tons of great tips on herInstagram page (which you can follow at @foodallergymama) and was kind enough to share some of her favorite back-to-school tips. Reading through her words, I was shocked by all the little gems she has to share and I know you’ll agree. All emphasis placed is mine, but all the words and adorable photos of her kiddos are hers, as well as the photos of the cute lunches. Enjoy!
Food Allergy Mama’s Back to School Tips for Parents of Kids with Food Allergies
If you are the parent of a child with food allergies, there’s more to preparing for a new school year than shopping for colorful new supplies. I am the mother of two boys with severe food allergies; a high school sophomore allergic to tree nuts and a seventh grader with multiple food allergies (most of the top 8, plus). I also used to teach in an elementary school and have a sister, mother and several good friends who are or were teachers. Following are ten things I have learned over the years as both a parent and teacher that make navigating school with food allergies easier and more successful.
(Photo, below: Her kiddos on the first day of school.)
1. Start Early
Don’t make the mistake of waiting to talk with staff about your child until they are busy with last minute meetings and preparations, juggling a classroom full of students, or are dealing with other parents at Back-to-School Night. Call the office during the summer and speak to the principal. You may wish to meet with the principal in person, too, but make sure to at least ask him/her how to contact your child’s teachers and when is the best time to do so, before school starts.
2. Respect Teacher’s Time
Teachers are busy and often take work home to do during their personal time. When you meet with them or even correspond via email, be brief. Plan what you want to say before you meet, writing down your key points so you don’t forget anything. Teachers will be so much more willing to work with you again if you are able to get to the point and not take up more of their time than is necessary.
3. Consider Yourself a Partner with Teachers and Staff
This is the time to leave mama bear at home and exercise diplomacy. Approach teachers and staff members respectfully and keep your discussions as non-emotional as possible. Be gracious, kind and polite. Bite your tongue, no matter how much you want to snap, “How would you like to sit in the library while your classmates are back in class doing math problems with M&M’s!?!” Sarcasm and anger will only alienate you from the very people you must work with. They are the ones responsible for the welfare of your child 6 hours a day or more. You need them on your side and not wanting to run in the opposite direction every time they hear you coming.
4. Meet with Every Staff Person Responsible for Your Child
Depending on the severity of your child’s allergies and what accommodations you want from your child’s school, you may need to meet with more than just your child’s classroom teacher. Don’t forget other teachers (P.E., music etc.), office staff, the school nurse, bus driver and especially the cafeteria staff (even if your child will never order hot lunch). Make an appointment for face-to-face meetings, at which you are more likely to have the teacher’s undivided attention. Put everything you agree on in writing and make sure all appropriate staff receives a copy (see next tip about Section 504 Plans and IHPs.) Include a plan for how and when substitute teachers will be filled in about your child.
5. Develop a Section 504 Plan, Individual Health Plan or Similar Plan
Food allergies may be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which means you can and should request a meeting with the appropriate staff members to develop a personalized Section 504 or similar plan (click here for more info). In our school district, an Individual Health Plan (IHP) is used. Each year, the school nurse sends me a copy of my child’s IHP for me to review and approve. Customize your plan! Every child with food allergies is different and one size does not fit all when it comes to thinking of their safety and inclusion. For years, my younger child’s IHP only covered what he is allergic to and what to do in case he experienced anaphylaxis, but I finally realized I could and should customize it. I added a piece that states that if my son is not feeling well or believes he may be experiencing an allergic reaction, he is never to be left alone or sent to the health room or bathroom alone, but always with another responsible person.
A bullying incident a few years ago prompted another addition to my son’s IHP. When he reported to the lunchroom duty teacher that another child was teasing him by waving his milk carton in his face, the duty teacher accused my child of overreacting. (I was furious, but calmed down before I went and had a polite, but serious discussion with said teacher.) A sentence about taking my child seriously when he speaks up was added to his IHP.
This year, a new part has been added regarding inclusion, because safety isn’t the only reason for having a 504 Plan or IHP. Once middle school started and I wasn’t as cozy with his teachers, my son was left out of 3 science experiments in a row due to his allergens being used. If the teacher had only contacted me prior to the experiments, we could have worked out an alternative so my son could have participated. Two other instances occurred that year where just a day or two of advance notice would have enabled my child to be included rather than made to sit alone on the far side of the room reading a book while the rest of the class did a fun project. When I told the school nurse about these incidents, she was shocked and assured me that the IHP would now include a line about inclusion and advance notification whenever food would be present in the classroom.
(For more information about 504 Plans for children with food allergies, go to foodallergy.org and click on the Tools and Resources menu, then Advocacy, Laws & Regulations, then under the Schools heading chose Sections 504 Plans, or click on this link: https://www.foodallergy.org/advocacy/section-504-plans)
(Photo, below: Two of the incredibly cute lunches Elizabeth makes for her boys.)
6. Be a Reasonable but Firm Advocate
No one can advocate for your child better than you, but to do this successfully, you need to know how to choose your battles, when to be firm and when to be flexible. When I sent my son to overnight camp with his school last year, I let all parties involved know that me meeting the camp nurse, head cook and site supervisor in person to go over menus, read food labels and discuss alternatives was non-negotiable. I didn’t ask them for permission and no one argued with me on that point. Other times, I had to be flexible, dropping everything to rush a safe cupcake to school every time there was a birthday child who brought treats without giving the teacher any advance notice.
7. Be the Room Party Mom
I can’t stress enough how much this helped us over the years. If you have younger children who aren’t allowed in the classroom, get a babysitter. If you work, take a few hours off the 3-4 times a year your child’s class has a party. If you aren’t comfortable with planning parties, get other parents to help you, but be the one in charge. As the room party mom, I planned the four holiday celebrations that took place in my son’s classroom. I got to choose the menu, shop for the food and make sure that activities were non-food focused. My son always got to eat what the other kids had (or something so similar he didn’t notice the difference.) And the times when other food was brought in unexpectedly, I was there to read the label and, when it wasn’t safe, speak up and ask that it be put away until later, or at least make sure it was passed out subtly and not given to my son.
(Photo, below: Elizabeth’s FA kids riding the bus, and one awesome Ninja Turtle making Allergy-Safe “Witch’s Brew” at a school party.
8. Ask for Birthdays to be Strictly Non-food Celebrations.
After many years of sugar highs wreaking havoc in the classroom, our school finally decided to implement a “no food birthday celebration” policy. Kids could bring in non-food treats to share or donate a book to the classroom library as a way of celebrating. When you ask your principal about this, be sure to include all the other reasons this is a good idea, besides food allergies (childhood obesity, time taken away from learning, etc.) Boy did this make life easier for me and my child! You can find more alternatives to food-centered birthday celebrations in a post titled “Food-free Reward and Celebration Ideas for School” on Allergic Living magazine’s website, allergicliving.com (Post by Alisa Fleming with tips from Nicole Smith, author and founder of “Allergic Child.”)
9. Be Prepared
Leave a set of unexpired epinephrine auto-injectors and other medications as needed with your school nurse or office staff. Have safe non-perishable food in the classroom for emergencies and lock-downs. Talk to your teacher about how unexpected treats in the classroom will be handled and decide if you’re willing to drop everything and rush to school with a safe treat when cupcakes, ice cream or donuts unexpectedly show up. When things go wrong (and they will), calm down, collect your thoughts and contact the teacher the same day, while the incident is still fresh.
No matter how hard you try to prevent exclusion, bullying or exposure to an allergen, these things will still happen. So before they do, talk to your child about how to handle them, how to speak up and self-advocate, how to stay safe and how to handle the hurt that comes with exclusion. Whenever my son came home from school in a grumpy mood, it was usually because everyone got a special treat and he was left out or had to have something from his safe treats box. Those moments of exclusion will break your heart, but they won’t disappear as your child grows. You have to teach him/her how to deal with those disappointments in a healthy way. In the case of spontaneous ice cream parties, we had giant safe banana splits right after school, loaded with extra sprinkles on top.
10. Make Lunchtime Fun
In elementary school I used to take my youngest son hot lunch once or twice aweek, since he could never buy hot lunch from the cafeteria. Then he started middle school and I asked him what his favorite and least favorite classes were. He told me his least favorite class was actually lunchtime because everyone was always eating things in front of him that he couldn’t have. I vowed that day to start making lunch more fun. With inspiration from the internet and some inexpensive supplies I started making bento-style lunches for him, often with a theme. They take a bit of planning and some of the more elaborate ones take longer to make, but now he looks forward to lunch (and all the hot lunch eaters are jealous of his allergy-friendly meal.)
(Photos, below: Two more of the her lunches. They’re ridiculously cute and healthy. Seriously. #momoftheyear)
11. More Information
You’ll have bumps in the road over the years and every new school year will bring new challenges, but with a positive outlook and a level head, school can be a safe, fun and inclusive place for your kids with food allergies. Instead of dreading your kids going back to school, you can be like other parents and look forward to it! (For more information on preparing for back-to-school, I recommend Food Allergy Research and Education’s article “School Guidelines for Managing Students with Food Allergies.”)