Sending your child to school when they have a severe food allergy can feel terrifying. But there are steps you can take to make sure they stay safe.
Communication with your child’s school and teachers is an important first step. You can teach them how to decrease the risk of an allergic reaction, how to recognize one, and what to do if it happens.
You can teach your child simple tips to help avoid an exposure and what to do in the event of a reaction. Kids can be very in tune with their bodies and can often help adults know when to take action.
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When your child has a food allergy, it usually requires a lot of lifestyle changes for them and their families to keep them safe. But these changes are much easier to implement inside the home. Sending your child to school for the first time, or starting a new school or grade, can feel particularly scary.
But there are steps you can take to make sure their school environment is safe for them. And you can help your child learn how to advocate and watch out for themselves while they are there. These steps will also protect them in other social situations like sporting events and birthday parties. We will review what you can do to make sure your child can have a safe and happy school transition.
School is often the first place your child will spend a large portion of their time away from the home. And a new school can create a lot of unknowns. But you can eliminate a lot of this uncertainty by communicating with the school and understanding your child’s day-to-day schedule.
It may be confusing to know who to talk to first. Start by reaching out to the school nurse or someone at the front desk. They can often point you in the right direction. In smaller schools, this may be the principal or head of school. In larger districts, there may be a coordinator who specifically helps with allergies and medical needs. Either way, they can help coordinate the team of people that will be responsible for your child’s safety.
Once you get in touch with the right people, together you can develop:
An action plan in the event your child has an allergic reaction
Strategies to help reduce the risk of an exposure
We’ll go over in detail what to communicate to the school, nurse, and teachers.
Your child should have an individualized plan that you and the school develop together to allow your child to attend school safely. Sometimes this plan is also called a “504.” It’s a good place to write down your child’s “Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Emergency Care Plan.” Your allergist usually gives you this document, which provides specific instructions on how to take care of your child if they have a reaction. You can use it as a blueprint to talk to the teacher and school nurse about your child’s allergy, what a reaction looks like, and what to do.
Even with this written information, it’s helpful to communicate directly with your child’s teacher and school nurse (if there is one). Not all teachers know what a reaction looks like or when to use an EpiPen (epinephrine autoinjector). Schedule a time with your child’s teacher when you can have their undivided attention. Bring everything your child needs to treat a reaction (medications and measuring tools). This allows you to demonstrate how to give the medications. Oftentimes the autoinjectors come with a trainer, so you and the teacher can practice.
It’s best to review this individual plan with your school every year. This ensures the school won’t overlook your child’s allergy. And it provides a great opportunity to check that the medication dosages are current (as your child may have grown and need more medicine). It’s also a good chance to replace any expired medications you keep at school.
It helps to understand your child's day-to-day schedule. This allows you to identify activities that put them at risk and to take steps to decrease that risk. You can advocate for your child in a number of ways:
Ask that students always eat food outside the classroom — including snack time.
Pack your child’s snacks and lunch at home so you can be sure of the ingredients. Even with an allergen-free menu, there’s a risk of cross-contamination in the cafeteria. It’s also a good idea to coach your child not to trade or share food.
Ask that everyone wash their hands after snack and lunch time.
Make sure that surfaces used during snack and meal times are wiped down.
Ask what supplies and materials are used during play or craft time. Sometimes these activities can include allergy triggers.
Ask for an opportunity for you or the teacher to teach classmates about foods that are safe for your child. Help them understand what a reaction looks like and what to do. Children can often pick these things up quickly.
Another situation to consider is an “allergy table” at lunch. If done well, it can be a safe space for any student with an allergy to eat their lunch. But in some cases, this can be lonely and isolating for children. In this situation, it’s best to ask that any child with an allergen-free lunch be allowed to sit in that area. Good friends won’t mind modifying their meals occasionally so your child won’t feel excluded.
School isn’t the only environment that poses a challenge. It’s also important to find a way for your child to safely attend social functions. Here are a few situations that arise frequently:
Holiday parties: Holidays celebrations at school can be particularly scary for the parent of a child with food allergies. Candy and treats are often doled out for Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and winter holidays. Your child can feel left out when avoiding unsafe treats. Steering the parties away from a focus on food can help. Fun alternatives include beading necklaces, making masks, or decorating cards.
Birthday parties: These gatherings are usually outside of school. And many parent hosts ask about food allergies or sensitivities in their invitation. You can ask what food will be served and find out if it will be safe for your child. You can also bring a safe alternative for your child.
Sports: Snacks are often a part of practice and games. If families are asked to take turns bringing snacks, sign up early. This gives you an opportunity to ask others if they have food allergies. By accommodating others in a similar situation, you can often bring awareness to food allergies for the entire group.
Give your child the information and tools they need to take care of themselves. Your child may surprise you at how much ownership they’re able to take. Here are some tips for talking with your child:
Talk to them about their allergies. If kids know what they are allergic to, they can speak up for themselves. Help them understand that their bodies react strongly to their allergen, and why it isn’t safe for them to eat those things.
As your child learns to read, it can be helpful to teach them to read food labels. There are often alternative names of the things your child is allergic to.
After a reaction, talk to your child about what it felt like. This can help them recognize another episode early. It may also help reinforce the need to be careful about what they eat. In older kids, it might help them avoid the temptation of eating something to fit in or not feel left out.
Teach them about their medications. If kids understand what their medications are for, they’ll know how to ask an adult to get the help they need it.
Teach them to be responsible for carrying their own medications. Get your child in the habit of bringing their medications and their food action plan with them. Caretakers (like babysitters or grandparents) may forget to bring emergency medications. Even preschoolers can remember to carry a backpack or small purse. For young children, remind them that only an adult should open those medications.
Teach them how to advocate for themselves. This can mean speaking up and saying “I can’t have that. I can get really sick.” Or it can mean asking for help from the nearest adult. If they start coughing or itching, they should tell their teacher or caregiver. That may be all a bystander needs to take action.
It may seem like an overwhelming task to keep your child with a food allergy safe while away from home. It’s wise to be cautious, but there are steps you can take to minimize your child’s risk of anaphylaxis. Communicating with the people in your child’s world can be very helpful. Raise awareness about your child’s allergy so others can recognize a reaction and know what steps to take next. And when you teach your child how best to stay safe, you will be teaching your child life-long habits to live with their food allergy.
Food Allergy Research & Education. (2022). Food allergy & anaphylaxis emergency care plan.
U.S. Department of Labor. (n.d.). Section 504, rehabilitation act of 1973.