Teachers, we know what you’re thinking. It’s dread. The dread of having someone with a food allergy in your class. We know it because we've felt it ourselves. It was the same feeling we had when our kids were diagnosed with food allergies.
We know you have other struggles. You have 20-30 loved ones in your class and each of them come with their own special circumstances and personalities. As if that isn’t hard enough, there are the parents of these kids too. Each parent comes with their own set of demands and pressures which I’m sure border on outrageous at times.
We want you to know that food allergy moms & dads see this and we hate adding to your daily grind. We want to be as helpful and understanding as possible, and we hope we can work together as a team.
So I’m writing this post to encourage you, teacher. I want to replace the dread with confidence and a sense that with a little preparation, food allergies in your classroom will be no worse than playground duty on a cloudy day.
Why Teachers Need To Know About Food Allergies
First of all, why is it important to know how to handle food allergies? There are a few stats I want to share with you, so bear with me here.
Anaphylaxis is the life-threatening reaction that can happen when someone who’s allergic eats a food (or traces of a food) that they are allergic to. Do you know where anaphylaxis is MOST LIKELY to occur at school? IN THE CLASSROOM. In fact here’s a list of places it’s most likely:
- Almost 47% of anaphylactic reactions take place in the classroom
- Almost 20% of anaphylactic reactions take place in the cafeteria
- Almost 10% of anaphylactic reactions take place on the playground
This means that likely YOU will be the adult in charge if a life-threatening, anaphylactic reaction happens. Now, I know you might be thinking; how many schools even experience anaphylaxis on a yearly basis? According to one survey, the answer to that is 17%. I don’t know about you, but if I knew that 17 out of every 100 schools experience anaphylaxis every year, and those reactions are happening in a place where I was the supervising adult, I would want to make sure I knew my stuff. And there is an EASY way to do that. The Allergy Aware Course (www.allergyaware.ca)* is FREE and designed for educators and only takes 30 minutes to complete. Pretty great, right?
Now let's get to those tips...
Seven Tips To Make Handling food allergies in Your Classroom easier
1. Take the Allergy Aware Course described above.
It only takes 30 minutes, but it will teach you SO much. It will give you the confidence you need to handle a food allergy emergency if you had to.
2. Meet with the food allergy parents at the beginning of each year (by this I mean in the spring or summer if possible).
Read this blog post about WHY this is important. Listen and ask LOTS of questions. Asking questions will give food allergy parents a sense of confidence because it helps them see this is important to you. Don’t forget to tell them you took the Allergy Aware Course (and show them the certificate). Taking the time to discuss these things now & increasing their confidence in your food allergy knowledge will cut down on the number of worried emails you’ll get throughout the year.
3. Realize that small amounts of an allergen (so small that you can’t see) is enough to create a reaction.
Because of this, food from bulk bins and homes that have the allergen aren’t safe for food allergy kids. Knowing this means you can head straight to the labelled, packaged goods instead of wasting time at the bulk bins (but don't forget to run all food by the food allergy parents first).
4. Include the food allergy kiddo in classrooms activities.
This is as simple as focusing less on food-based celebrations and curriculum and more on experience-based celebrations & curriculum (i.e. finding ways for kids to bond that don’t involve food). Ideas include creative games (both indoors and out), blowing bubbles, dance parties, games, races, extra recess etc. A couple extra benefits for you: improved learning & less sugar-hyped kids!
5. Know that the way you communicate to NON-food allergy parents and students makes a big difference.
For example: don’t apologize for not being able to do something because of food allergies. This creates resentment in the non-food allergy kids & parents and a lot of guilt for the food allergy kids. Instead, find common ground for all. For example, foregoing cupcakes for birthdays is healthier, easier & less expensive and these are positive reasons that all parents can relate to (even if they don’t agree). Replacing the birthday cake tradition with a super fun & special “experience” for kids will be no problem on the kid front.
6. Ask the food allergy parents for help with anything that relates to food.
Food allergy parents do not mind at all! For example, if there’s a curriculum item that you know is coming and you normally use food, talk to the food allergy family. They might be able to find a safe replacement or suggest other options.
7. Take the time in class to teach about food allergies.
Explain why it’s important that kids with food allergies don’t share food or eat something that they’re not sure of. Explain how they can help to keep the food allergy kiddo safe. Also, one of the most helpful things for you as a teacher will be to let the kids “play” with an epinephrine training injector. You can usually get one or two free trainers on the injector websites (just ask the food allergy family which one they use or if they have extras). By letting kids see what it’s like, the mystery will be gone and it will stop them from wanting the food allergy kiddo to “show it to them”. Helping kids understand food allergies will increase understanding, empathy and kindness, which is something we all want, right?
Dear teacher, we understand that food allergies add another “thing” to your long “to-do” list. We also know that you care about keeping food allergy kids safe. So I hope this helps you understand that small steps make BIG progress and it’s not as hard as you think. Thank you for all you do!
*I have no affiliation with the Allergy Aware Course. I just think it's a great course; and did I mention it's free?