Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Welcome to The New Age: What We Should Expect From Schools and Managing Food Allergies in the Classroom

I've been dealing with food allergies at school since 2004 and while I do think there is much more awareness about allergies these days, it still seems as a lot of us are having problems managing allergies at school.

Some parents tell me that they are not being listened to or respected with regards to life-threatening food allergies, even though they have followed the school's rules, i.e., filled out the paperwork, visited the allergist, met with the school staff and the myriad other tasks that go along with managing food allergies in daily life.

Just to be clear:  when I say "respected" I simply mean acknowledging that the allergy is real and that certain reasonable, necessary accommodations may be required. The unfortunate facts are that food allergies can be life-threatening and some classroom practices might require a little adaptation. What is troubling is that some parents are being called upon to frequently justify their child's allergies despite the fact that they've provided medical documentation, doctor's notes, etc.

If you're a parent feeling drained or frustrated by allergy management at school, don't feel alone because it takes effort to make things go smoothly -- sometimes a lot of effort.  Lately, I've been wondering: does it have quite so intensely difficult, with parents needing to be "pioneers" each year? After all, food allergies are not a brand-new problem.

I don't have all the answers but I, along with my daughter, have been managing allergies at school for more than 10 years. We've always tried to work with the school and usually we have been successful -- though not without struggle at times. With the era of food allergy awareness definitely upon us, I think we can have the following reasonable expectations. To me, these are the basics:

1. To be taken seriously if you have provided the appropriate medical documentation for the allergy.

2. To be treated with respect by school staff if you have concerns about your allergic student. If the person you're dealing with doesn't have the answers, they should be ready and willing to send you to the person who does.

3. To be prepared as parents to offer reminders or to engage in follow-up discussions, but not forced to re-invent the wheel and start at point A each time there is a new class party or field trip on the horizon. Having to re-open our child's health issues each time an event comes up is not only frustrating, it's dangerous as all of the major questions and concerns should have been settled at the beginning of the school year (of course you may always have to tweak things and make adjustments but a basic plan should be in place that doesn't deviate.)

4. To be ready to offer our assistance in educating others about allergies, with the understanding that many of us are new at this and are still educating ourselves. At this point in our collective experience, we should expect schools to be providing all staff with some food allergy education beyond just the basic epinephrine usage training that many of them receive -- a great thing, but only one part of the puzzle. Some basic discussion on cross-contact and allergen avoidance is equally important.

5. To prepare our child as best as we can according to their age and level of development with the knowledge that if something goes wrong despite our best efforts and our child's best efforts, (accidents happen, mistakes can be made) that the school knows what to do in an emergency and will actually do it.

While I am a huge advocate of parental support and teaching kids self-advocacy, the fact is that when kids cross the threshold to school, the school has a responsibility to them, just as it does to all students. It isn't just one or two students with allergies any more and sadly, the numbers continue to grow. In addition, schools are accommodating many types of special needs and food allergies are under that umbrella, so don't let anyone tell you that "no one" has any of the same issues as you. Unfortunately, they probably do.

You might also like these posts from The Nut-Free Mom blog:

Planning for the School Year with Food Allergies

Working Around Food Allergies at Class Parties

Teaching Kids to Manage their Nut Allergies

For a crash course in managing your child's life-threatening nut allergies (including communication tips and lots of emotional support), click this link.

Note: I'm a parent just like you sharing my experiences. If you have any medical or legal questions, please consult the appropriate medical or legal resources. Thank you!


The Atomic Mom said...

Thank you for this. I have a 5 year old ... he is not quite there on advocating for himself, yet, so I hope and pray that the school takes care of him. My other issue, and I've seen it pop up in blogs over the last few weeks, is this sense of entitlement that some people have about birthday parties and treats at school. I don't know what else I can do to help people understand that my child's life is worth more than a birthday cupcake.

aunnablucker said...

This is very helpful! My mother is a teacher, and it gets difficult to allow snacks due to so many allergies in students these days.

Thank you!

Unknown said...

i actually have a nut allergy myself and have found reading your blog interesting. I always have to watch out for food especially at school. becuase i dont want my throat to close up and die, i bring food to have. I have hated being the one kid who cant eat the cupcake or cookie. to fix that problem i bring a small bag of Oreos (my favorite nut-free cookie ^.^) so i wont feel left out.

one question for you though, because of my allergy i get bullied a lot. they say im crazy cuz i have to check the labels on everything i eat like 3 times. How can i get them to shut up? im fed up with the jokes everyone says about me. They say "I must be lesbian cuz im allergic to nuts." ughhh i need to knoe how to make them stop. its making me hate my high school even more than i already do.

sorry i got off topic. i read this and then it kinda set me off so yeah.

~KayKay 15

Jenny said...

The Atomic Mom, I completely agree! The cupcake craze at school is just that -- crazy! How do schools have time to deal with that when the school day is already so packed! If you want to celebrate, non-edible treats/activities are just as good.

Aunna Blunker, I'm glad this helped.

Katie, I am very sorry that your schoolmates are treating you this way. You are not crazy, if you check the labels several times you are SMART and careful. My daughter does the same thing and it's because she knows labels can be tricky. So keep up the good work! If you are having serious problems at school, I hope you will talk to a respected adult. For issues with teens and food allergies, there are many online resources at FARE and Anaphylaxis Canada: they have a "Why Risk It" section and teen resource column on their blog that you might find comforting.

If people are saying stupid things to you, one of the best things you can do is to act confident and matter of fact about your allergy and your management of it. Don't cringe or act ashamed -- you have nothing to be ashamed of! I know that kids can be stupid but just remember, your life is your own and you have to take care of yourself as best you can. That's nobody's business but yours and if people don't like it, that's really a poor reflection on them, not on you. I wish you all the best!!! Jenny