My daughter started pre-school in 2011 when she was 3. I wanted to give her a chance at pre-school, but I knew we would have to deal with “the elephant in the room” and make sure our school knew how to handle food allergies safely. Just like all food allergy moms, I took the challenge straight on and did what I thought was best for my child. And yes, she got through pre-school safely, and all the way up to grade 4 this year. But because there's been so much trial and error, it wasn’t without a whole lot of stress on my part. Honestly, a lot of the first few years of school with food allergies were grasping at straws, trying to figure out EXACTLY what needs to be done and HOW to convey information to the teachers. I knew WHAT I wanted, but had no idea how to make it happen.
Which meant I focused on the wrong things a lot.
I wasted many opportunities to educate our teachers, OR I educated when the time wasn’t right. Each time HOPING that something would stick. And each year, once I’d finally feel like we might have sorted things out, the year would end and I’d be back to square one with a new teacher.
This may sound familiar to those who already have kids in school or daycare.
The first 5 years were rough, but they were filled with experiences that I learned from and used to make things better. Looking back now, there are a few clear mistakes that I made that would have made life easier from the start.
Mistake #1 I Felt Overly Secure Because Our School(s) Had A Peanut & Nut Aware Policy.
Knowing our school has a peanut and nut aware policy has been a tremendous source of comfort for me. Especially in the younger grades. And even though it does offer some safety for kids with peanut & nut allergies (especially at the younger ages), I didn’t realize that these policies also have faults.
After several years of being in a school with a peanut and tree nut aware policy, I know that as much as the school tries to keep nuts out, there are always nuts there. From PB & J sandwiches to Nutella snacks, my kids have seen them around at recess and in the cafeteria. Unfortunately, unless the school is hyper-vigilant, this is the reality. My kids tell me about this every once and awhile and we report it to our (awesome) principal. At first, I thought they were rare events, but after happening several times, I started to realize that this was the reality and a constant battle.
Just like us, teachers also take comfort in the nut aware policy. This is great, BUT for them, it often means that all they have to do is ask for “no nuts” when they’re planning a class celebration. Except foods that are made in a home with allergens without knowledge of cross-contact and how to avoid it, are "may contain" and not safe for food allergy kids. Which means there are 1-2 kids per classroom that aren't able to partake in the special food celebrations with their classmates and end up isolated and “left out".
Recently there was a study done examining whether peanut & nut free policies were effective. There’s a lot to be considered, but in general, the study showed that epinephrine use did NOT decrease when peanut and nut free policies were in place. Even though I think there are few good reasons for this, it shows that we can’t solely depend on these policies to keep our peanut & nut allergic kids safe.
And of course nut and peanut policies do nothing for our friends with other life-threatening allergies.
How you can avoid this
- If your school has an allergy aware policy (or any allergy policy), don’t assume it works. Find out how it’s enforced and whether the culture of your school causes compliance from other parents or resentment.
- Create a solid plan with your teacher and school that discusses inclusiveness, staff & peer education and it’s importance.
Mistake #2 I Trusted That Every Teacher Knew What They Needed to Keep A Food Allergy Kid Safe.
Wow, was I wrong about this one.
We’ve had some awesome teachers who fully understand food allergies. But I would say that 5 years out of 7 have not been this way. Even the teachers that understood food allergies, didn’t really think too much about inclusiveness. And I can say for sure that I’ve needed to teach every teacher at least one or two important things. And don’t get me wrong. If you don’t live with it, you CAN’T be expected to know everything. Even teachers that live with it themselves may not know HOW to effectively deal with it in the classroom.
This mistake plagued me for the first few years. Instead of going over everything with every teacher, I usually focused on discussing things that the previous year's teacher struggled with. This would usually start out ok only to find out a month or two later that I missed discussing something really important.
These days, I still give teachers the benefit of the doubt, but now I assume that the teacher wants to help my daughter and assume they're doing their best. I DON’T assume, however, that they know how to keep my food allergy kiddo safe and I spend time ensuring they understand fully.
How you can avoid this.
- Assume the best of your teacher. This will get you much further during your discussions and if difficulties arise.
- Figure out precisely what your teacher knows about the food allergy basics like cross-contact, emergency plan, epinephrine use and safe foods.
- Fill in the blanks for them without overwhelming them with information. I.e. a binder filled with resources is too much! It may get thumbed through or 1 or 2 pages read at best, but it will likely get shelved. Overwhelm is real for all of us, especially an overworked teacher.
Mistake #3 Being completely clear about what I wanted for my daughter at school but having NO IDEA HOW to make It happen.
The biggest goals I have for my daughter at school is to avoid an anaphylactic reaction; to make sure my teachers know what to do if there is an anaphylactic reaction; and to keep her included.
I think its safe to say this is what every food allergy mama wants. But over 7 years I’ve learned that going from what I want, to it actually happening is really different. For example, think about someone in your life that you can’t wait to hear from. This would be someone you classify as “your peeps”. Think about why you want to spend time with them. How can you use these characteristics in your relationship with your teacher?
I’ve learned it takes a lot more than just demanding a list of “wants” from my teacher because that’s what will keep my child safe. If people don’t really understand WHY it’s important or HOW it affects them, they may not know to make it a priority, even if YOU know it’s super important.
How you can avoid this
- Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can figure this all out on your own. There’s no harm in using what's worked for others to be successful. Why struggle for 6 or 7 years when you could be on the path to a more safe and inclusive classroom right in the beginning?
Although I made many mistakes along the way (these are just 3 of them), I’ve learned from these mistakes and used these lessons to improve my school allergy strategy every year. I deeply believe that a good school allergy plan and a strong STRATEGY to create & implement one is super important. Talking to your teacher and school about food allergies is A LOT easier when you have a strategy that’s more than a list of demands or requirements.
To help you, I’ve created a list of school allergy solutions with their pros and cons HERE: