Lately, it seems as if more and more children arrive at school with food allergies, and for some, these health conditions are life threatening. And even if a child’s reaction isn’t quite this severe, there are milder food sensitivities that can, nonetheless, disrupt their learning.
How can parents, teachers, and students work together to ensure that children are safe and free from common food triggers that can interrupt their education?
The Importance of Food in a Classroom Community
Food is not just a necessary part of a student’s day; it is also an important tool for teaching — and learning — how to socialize with one another. Because food is central to imparting a community’s values, many teachers create classroom events that are built around it: celebrating a child’s birthday with cupcakes; planning a Halloween party with candy; or teaching the customs of a culture through a traditional ethnic meal.
Such activities are great for building community within a classroom, but they run the risk of excluding children with allergies and food sensitivities, or worse, leading to a dire situation. It can often seem as if the only way to protect children who are vulnerable to these allergens is to end food-based events in schools.
But is this the only solution?
Parents’ Role Working With Schools
Managing your child’s allergies at school is a challenge. It’s critical to be sure that everyone is informed of her food issues — from the principal to the teachers to the receptionist. One of my children was struggling in second grade, and it wasn’t until we discovered that the school’s occupational therapist (OT) had been giving her dyed candies that we understood what was triggering her behavioral issues. Even though my daughter’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) explicitly prohibited such foods, the OT was not aware of this provision.
Parents should also note that certain food allergies and intolerances may be legally categorized as a disability. For example, in 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice came to an agreement with Lesley University under protections afforded by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that required the school — and many other educational institutions — to provide reasonable modifications to their meal plan to accommodate students with Celiac disease and other food-related autoimmune disorders. And, as mentioned earlier, such life-threatening allergies can be included in an IEP or 504 plan.
For children without IEPs or 504 accommodations, such issues can be even more of a challenge. I recommend meeting with the school principal and classroom teachers to discuss situations in which your child might have access to foods that are off limits, and to ensure that all school staff are informed of the risks. It’s also important to confirm that teachers and staff alike know the signs of an allergic reaction or sensitivity, especially those that are life threatening.
Create a plan for how you will work together when outside food is brought in to classroom events. For example, if children are allowed to share treats with their classmates on their birthday, ask your child’s teacher to forewarn you so you’re able to provide an allergen-safe substitute. If your child is not mature enough to resist tempting foods, request that a staff member supervise her during the celebration if you are not able to attend the event yourself.
It’s also critical to have an emergency plan in place in case an event does not go as planned. The school should have a complete list of your child’s allergies and reactions, as well as emergency contact information for you and her pediatrician. In addition, you must provide the school with written permission and the proper medication to administer in case of an emergency in advance of such an event.
You’ll also need to educate your child (at her cognitive level) about foods that are dangerous for her and warn her about sharing, even if it seems as if she should be able to eat something. Take precautions like equipping her with an allergy bracelet (an online search will bring up many results for companies that provide this product along with a tracking service) and a lunchbox marked with her name and specific allergies.
7 Steps for Schools to Manage Food Allergies
No one wants a medical emergency to occur in school, and to avoid them, everyone must be proactive. Here are seven steps educators, administrators, and staff can take to ensure they are prepared:
1. The school nurse should have EpiPens and other lifesaving allergy medications on hand, and be prepared to administer them. Moreover, other staff should be trained as well in the event she is unavailable. If there isn’t a nurse present on school grounds at all times, administrators must identify and train staff who are able to provide such medications in an emergency.
All medicines should be marked with a child’s name, stored properly, kept safe yet accessible, and checked regularly for expiration dates. Expired medications should, of course, be discarded.
2. Consult with parents and a child’s physician to understand the severity of the condition and to develop policies that will ensure all students’ safety. For example, a school may consider banning foods containing peanuts in the event there is a child attending who has a severe peanut allergy.
3. Staff must learn the signs of an allergic reaction and take appropriate steps to save a life during a severe, potentially lethal episode known as anaphylaxis. When a school is informed that one of its students has this type of life-threatening condition, administrators may hold a training session for all staff to teach about common triggers, necessary precautions, and emergency responses in the event of a mistake.
4. Communicate a policy to staff, including any contracted or district service providers like therapists or substitute teachers, that foods may not be used as a reward, motivator, or other form of encouragement.
5. School administrators must also keep in mind food safety while children are being transported to and from school, on field trips, or when outside visitors are present so that lapses do not occur during these times.
6. Schools should proactively require documentation — and indeed, many do — from parents about any health conditions, including food allergies and reactions, that incoming students may have. One of the most effective steps a school can take to lower its potential liability from a life-threatening allergy event is to document all the needs of children with these conditions and practice worst-case scenarios before they happen.
7. It is also helpful for classroom teachers to encourage parents to send their children in with fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy alternatives.
School administrators need to take steps to prevent deadly food reactions, of course, but less threatening reactions can also disrupt classes. Some children have adverse reactions to certain dyes contained in processed foods, for example, and while I don’t recommend banning non-threatening foods, parents and teachers should also meet to discuss a plan to handle such sensitivities.
Important Considerations for the School Community
Sometimes, parents wonder, “Why should I deprive my child of peanut butter just because yours is allergic?”
Parents who don’t have children with food allergies may find it inconvenient to have peanut butter — a top deadly allergen — removed from their list of lunch options. And, indeed, it is understandable that these families are reluctant to forgo peanut butter since it is readily available, kid-friendly, and quite affordable compared with other nut-free butters.
That said, here are several important considerations all parents need to understand about schools and food allergies:
- Some kids with food allergies can have a life-threatening reaction in a matter of moments to something as seemingly insignificant as peanut dust.
- Anaphylactic shock and cardiac arrest are terrifying events that can beset a child who has a life-threatening allergy, and this can take place in front of any students in the school. No one wants a child to witness a classmate experiencing such a reaction. Food-allergy policies are in place to protect children without these conditions as much as they are there for those with them.
- The federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees every American child access to a free public and appropriate education (FAPE), including those with disabilities such as severe food allergies.
- If an adverse event happens on its grounds, the school may be liable if it was informed of a child’s allergy and did not take appropriate steps to safeguard her environment. Such an occurrence can have damaging consequences for a school and its budget if the institution or district is found liable, which, in turn, may affect all children enrolled.
If we all work together, we can ensure that children with food allergies and sensitivities are not left out of important classroom events. Indeed, I’ve had wonderful experiences of other parents bringing in snacks that my children could eat. And such care and concern goes a long way to building the sort of school community in which teachers, parents, and kids look out for one another.
Resources for Families:
- You can learn more about your child’s rights regarding dietary restrictions at WrightsLaw, a site devoted to families of children with special needs.
- Families can download Managing Food Allergies in School Settings: Guidance for Parents as well as School Guidelines for Managing Students With Food Allergies from Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE). FARE also provides a printable Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Emergency Care Plan to maintain allergy information and care for the child.
Food Allergy Research & Education. (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2015, from FARE.
Managing food allergies in the school setting: Guidance for parents. (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2015, from FARE.
School guidelines for managing students with food allergies. (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2015, from FARE.