The first day of school. For me, those five words carried just as much, if not more, emotion, anxiety and dread than preparing to go into labor. In each case, I knew something wonderful awaited on the other side of the process, but I also knew it would be a struggle to get there. On that first morning, every mom drives away from the school or walks in from the bus stop and weeps over the sense of loss that she just experienced. The first day of school marks the end of a season of life with a child, and each season passes faster than we ever imagined.
The first day of school is a challenging day for every mom, but for a food allergy mom the anxiety and emotion are exaggerated because of the deep-rooted fears that come along with entrusting your child to the care of others. Until that day, I was solely responsible for keeping my son safe and alive. I read every food label – multiple times. I was ready, at the drop of a hat, to recognize anaphylaxis and pounce with my epinephrine auto-injector. I never wanted to be, or planned to be, a “helicopter parent,” but when your child has life-threatening food allergies you have no choice.
So many questions and worries plagued me: Would my son’s teacher remember his allergies? Would his teacher recognize the signs and symptoms of a reaction? Would my son turn down offers of food from his classmates and even other adults as we’ve practiced? Would he have an EpiPen administered in time to stop a reaction? Would my son remember to sit at the allergy-friendly lunch table? Would that make him feel left out? Would others bully him because he is different?
I wish I could say these thoughts stopped running through my mind after that first day of school, or even after the first few weeks of school. But if I’m honest, these questions and others still creep up even now (seven months later). Thankfully, a few simple steps made that first day of school – and every school day since then – much more manageable and much less stressful.
My first step was to meet with our pediatric allergist to develop a safety plan for the school. We discussed my son’s allergies, the schedule of his school day, the facilities and healthcare resources his school provided, and we worked together to complete a Food Allergy Emergency Action Plan. If you don’t have such a plan and would like one FARE has a wonderful website filled with all sorts of printable resources. Talking through the plan that our school would be following in the event of a reaction with our allergist left me feeling more at peace.
The next step was to meet directly with the school staff. Keep in mind that schools and their staff are on break over the summer. Once school begins in the fall, they are bombarded with back-to-school tasks and meeting requests from other families. Instead of adding to the back-to-school chaos, we requested a meeting in the spring. We met with the school nurses, teachers, and an administrator, and explained our son’s allergies and the types of reactions that we’d seen in the past. We walked through our Food Allergy Emergency Action Plan and took time to answer any and all questions. We also followed up again in the fall just to make sure that the school personnel were still comfortable with the plan and did not have any additional questions as school approached.
The final step for us was to increase our food allergy safety training at home. My little men have grown up with my husband and I openly and frequently talking about their allergies. They know to always ask if something is “safe” before eating it or even touching it. They also know that if they don’t feel good to inform an adult immediately. My little men and I did some additional “drills” where we rehearsed some situations they might experience in school situations and we would talk through how they should react.
As that first day of school approached, I had to accept that I could only do so much and I couldn’t go with him to school – although I probably would’ve if they had let me! I had to let go, rest in the assurance that I’d done everything that I could to prepare him and his teachers, and trust that they’d take care of him.
My oldest is just about to finish kindergarten, and I’m thrilled to report that it’s been a wonderful experience. I still check in with the teacher and nurse from time to time and I always follow up before any non-routine events such as field trips or parties. We have been blessed with a wonderful teacher who is very conscious of his allergies. She has made extraordinary efforts to ensure that he’s not only safe, but also that he always has allergy-free foods and crafts available to him so he can participate in all of the class activities.
How has your experience been with schools and food allergies? Have you implemented a Food Allergy Emergency Action Plan or a 504 Plan with your child’s school? What other steps would you recommend to make the transition to school easier for you, your child, and the school?
Lauren Kossack, Our Life as an Epi-Family