Food Allergies: Expert Tips For Keeping Your Child Safe at School

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While some schools have a strong understanding of how to handle food allergies, others may not have as much awareness or resources.

If your child has a food allergy, letting them out of your sight can be a nerve-wracking experience. Yet with a little preparation, you can keep your child safe at school. Here are some smart strategies.

Ideally, prep work for this situation should begin six months before school starts, explains Girish Vitalpur, M.D., pediatric allergist at Riley Children’s Hospital at Indiana University Health. Even if you don’t have that much lead time, any amount of contact with the school before classes begin can help. “It’s worth learning how much experience that school has with food allergies and how many resources are in place, including school nurses and emergency preparations, to address this issue,” he says.

While some schools have a strong understanding of how to handle food allergies, others may not have as much awareness or resources. If the school is not comfortable with your child’s food allergy, for instance, ask the school principal if they can help improve the situation. If necessary, families may also need to look at other schools, Dr. Vitalpur says. That said, teachers and staff are usually willing to work with parents, which is why it also helps to find out who your child’s teacher is before school starts. You can then inquire about that teacher’s comfort level in handling food allergies and if necessary, request another teacher who’s more well versed in food allergies. 

When you do meet with school administration, come with information to give. Food Allergy Research and Education and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology offer numerous hand-outs on their web sites. You should also have detailed information about your child’s allergy, including trigger foods, symptoms your child typically experiences, medications and instructions on what to do if your child does consume a food allergen. “Because every child responds to food allergies differently, you need to review your child’s history with the principal, school and teacher,” Dr. Vitalpur says.

Then, see if you can work together to modify current school policies that might put your child in harm’s way. For instance, does the school allow food to be served in classrooms?  “It would be best if the school agreed to have the cafeteria be the only place where food is allowed,” Dr. Vitalpur says. If that’s not possible, at least agree upon safe foods that could be offered in the classroom. It might also be worth asking the teacher to spread the message to parents of kids in the classroom, especially if other kids have food allergies. You could even set up a committee to come up with safe food alternatives if food is allowed in the classroom, Dr. Vitalpur says.

Meanwhile, teach your child, especially if they’re young, not to take food from other kids. Granted, that’s not an easy message to impart, Dr. Vitalpur says, but it’s necessary, as kids who have reactions have often come into contact with their allergen by eating other kids’ food. Instead, let them know they should only take food from adults and always be vocal about expressing the fact that they have a food allergy and be specific in stating which allergens, even when not asked. 

In the end, remember that while food allergies can be life threatening, other kids at school are dealing with equally challenging conditions ranging from diabetes to seizure issues. “While reactions can happen anywhere, food allergies, like other issues, are ones that schools are used to handling and with the right team effort, can be properly managed,” Dr. Vitalpur says.

-- By Karen Asp

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