My son was a talkative, outgoing two and a half year old – smart, active and ready for school. Our local preschool was nut-free. “Don’t you feel relieved?” I remember being asked. Did I feel safer? No. Not really. My son was allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, dairy, and eggs. And, although eliminating nuts from school snacks relieved us of one of the potential triggers of his anaphylaxis, it didn’t remove them all. School was not a purely safe zone for us physically. But there was more to consider.
While I was worried about him having a reaction at school, I was almost more concerned about how his inability to partake in food-related activities would impact him socially. Would the other kids mistake his reluctance to handle or eat certain food as rude or weird? Could he safely play in a space where kids may or may not have washed their hands after eating nuts at home? Would he feel left out when well-intentioned parents sent in special treats for the kids without regard to his many food allergies?
My son loved school from the start, but I remained worried. I didn’t want him to feel different. We were blessed to have an absolutely amazing first teacher who listened to my concerns after school had already started and lovingly pointed out that his food allergy DID make him different. I wept as soon as she said it. I had been fighting this very thing since his diagnosis as a toddler. “His food allergy is part of who he is. Let’s help him embrace it,” she kindly offered. She was right. And that shift in perspective has shaped all of us in ways we couldn’t have predicted.
Overall, we’ve had a wonderful experience at school. Over the years, I’ve learned a few things that help ensure a great experience at any school:
- Take the time to do your homework. Make an appointment BEFORE the school year begins. Ask lots of questions and get clear answers. For example, it’s important to understand the school’s policies towards food as well as their emergency medical protocol.
- Talk to your child’s teacher. Find out what he/she knows about food allergies and epinephrine auto-injectors. Educate them. Voice your concerns about the physical and emotional well-being of your child. Come up with a plan for snacks, special events (like birthdays, holiday parties, etc) and a way for him/her to communicate last minute changes to you. Enlist them as a teammate in caring for your child – they’re a big part of your son or daughter’s day.
- Speak to your doctor to discuss concerns about everyday classroom situations. I’ve had multiple long talks with our allergist about everything from sitting at the regular (versus peanut-free) lunch table, safely playing on the playground, to handling acorns in science class.
- Get a second epinephrine auto-injector as well as Children’s Benadryl and leave them with the school nurse. Have an allergist or pediatrician fill out an action plan for you (a template can be downloaded from Allergy Shmallergy: https://shmallergy.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/put-this-on-your-to-do-list-today-food-allergy-action-plan/).
- Inform your child. Discuss the parameters of his/her allergy without scaring him. Practice a couple of possible social situations he/she might face and how to respond. Like when a well-meaning friend wants you to try the delicious homemade brownie they brought in. “That looks great, but I have a food allergy and it’s safer if I stick to my own meal.” Tell your child to enlist the help of the school nurse or his/her teacher if they are unsure of the safety of something. And, give them permission to interrupt ANYONE if they feel any of the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
My son, now a confident, capable 10 year old, currently attends a school that is not nut-free. We are relieved that the school itself doesn’t serve products with peanuts or tree nuts in them, however kids are allowed to bring them in their individual lunches. This has been excellent training for my son as it mimics the real world for him (and us) without all of the risks.
School is not JUST there for my son to learn math and science, it’s also there for him to learn how to be a self-reliant member of society. Each of the above steps (complete with all the emotional adjustments we make along the way) will create a safe environment for all of our kids to flourish!
For more information, see Allergy Shmallergy’s tips on starting and ending the school year on a high note!