The current school year is just wrapping up, but parents of food-allergic children need to start thinking about the next school year now - to give themselves time to research their school's policies around food allergies (especially relevant if their child will be new to the school) and meet with their child's physician/allergist to develop a plan over the summer.
Back-to-school time can be especially stressful for families with food-allergic children. School plunges children into a food-flooded environment with potential exposure to their allergens every day. And parents must relinquish some control over what their child eats at school, depending on the child and school staff to avoid their potentially life-threatening trigger foods.
Food allergies are on the rise. The Center for Disease Control reports an 18% increase in food allergies from 1997 to 2007, with peanut allergies more than tripling during that time period. Today, 1 in 13 children in the US have food allergies.
As we approach a new school year, parents nationwide worry about keeping their food-allergic kids safe at school.
Alicia Woodward, editor-in-chief of Living Without and a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist specializing in the psychological and social aspects of food allergies, offers the following advice to parents of food-allergic children:
• Develop a plan - Meet with your child's pediatrician and/or allergist to develop a plan, then review it with the school staff: principal, school nurse, teachers and lunchroom monitors.
• Determine whether the school already has food allergy protocols in place - Leverage existing policies, modifying them to meet your child's specific needs. For life-threatening food allergies, consider championing for new protocols, such as a nut free school environment or Epi-Pens in the classrooms.
• Educate your children in an age appropriate way - Teach children about their food allergies and empower them to speak up for themselves. Ensure they know what their symptoms feel like and how to communicate possible symptoms to an adult. Teach them how to read labels and to ask about ingredients in every snack and meal. Remind them to adamantly refuse their trigger foods.
• Prepare for an emergency - Create an Emergency Action Plan outlining your child's symptoms and what to do if they occur. Keep medications nearby and ensure that school staff knows how to administer them.
• Communicate with other parents - Ask the school to distribute a letter letting parents know that a student with a severe food allergy is in their child’s class Educate classmates' parents about your child's food allergy and explain if it's a life-threatening condition. Ask for their cooperation and outline what they can do to help keep your child safe.
• Request modifications for special celebrations. If your child's class celebrates birthdays and other holidays, ask the teacher to notify you in advance so you can send in a safe treat for your child to eat. Advocate for non-food related activities - e.g., giving out small toys or stickers instead of cupcakes - so that everyone can be included.
• Be appreciative - Thank school staff - and other parents - for their continued efforts to keep your child safe at school. Praise them for things they're doing well and be politely persistent if further changes are necessary.