The first day of school isn't just nerve-racking for kids—it can be tough on moms and dads too. After spending so many years looking after a child, packing their lunch and sending them off to be taught and supervised by adults you've never met before can be a lot to deal with.
That first day of school anxiety is often even stronger for the parents of children with food allergies, who worry if their children will be protected from reactions in the classroom.
"The idea of classrooms filled with children, foods and other potential allergy triggers can be scary for children with food allergies, and their parents," says John Lee, MD, director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Food Allergy Program. "But thankfully, food allergy awareness has come a long way in the past few years. With a little extra planning from mom, dad, an allergist and the school, there's no reason for school to cause extra anxiety for any child with allergies."
To do so, Lee recommends the following:
Get help figuring out your child's needs
Schedule time with your child's pediatrician or allergist to create a written set of instructions on how to help your child avoid reactions at school. Once completed, the list should be shared with the school's nurse and its administrators and circulated to all your child's teachers. But, when creating these instructions, it's important to remember that every school is different, and plans may need to be accommodated to meet the resources available. "Everyone needs to be on the same page, especially those in charge of carrying the plan out," Lee says. "Doctors, parents and school staff need to function as a team to create a plan that works for everyone.
Talk with the school staff, early and often
To let the school staff know the extent of your child's allergies and any accommodations that need to be made for protection, you should first speak with the school nurse as he or she will most likely know the most about how the school can best accommodate the needs of your child with allergies. After speaking with the nurse, you may want to coordinate a second meeting with your child's soon-to-be teacher and/or principal just to make sure everyone is up to date on how to manage the food allergy. When organizing these talks, try to set them up before the school year starts, if possible.
"During the first few weeks of school, teachers and school staff are very busy," Lee says. "To avoid creating an accommodation plan when school staff is distracted by many other duties, try to make an appointment to tour the school and meet the staff a few days or weeks before the first bells ring."
It's also a good idea to find out if someone else on the school staff is trained to use an epinephrine autoinjector, like an EpiPen or some other form of allergy medication, in the absence of the school nurse. Find out what other adults, aside from the classroom teacher, will be supervising your child throughout the day and make sure they will be informed of your child's needs.
"In these situations, you can't ask too many questions or be too thorough," Lee says. "And don't be afraid to check in periodically throughout the school year to see how your child is doing and ensure all of instructions are being adhered to."
Help your child help herself
A first-year student can't be expected to be self-sufficient when it comes to managing her allergies, but she can't be oblivious to them either. By kindergarten, a child with food allergies should have an idea about what foods to avoid and how to ask for help if she needs it. By teaching your child these skills early, you're starting her on the road to becoming an advocate for her own health and safety.
“To feel safe at school, a child and her parents need to trust her teachers and school staff, but the child also should be taught how to avoid obviously dangerous situations and/or ask for help if they have a reaction," says Lee.
Stay ahead of the meds
In the rush to get ready for the first day of school, it's common for parents to be a little frazzled. But regardless of how busy you are, it's important to take a moment and check your child's current medication supply. Does he need a refill? Are all her prescriptions up to date? Sending your child off to school with fully updated and stocked medical supplies is one of the most important things you can do to keep him or her safe. What's more, waiting until right before school starts to do so can lead to problems.
"In a lot of homes, checking the supply of allergy medicines often gets forgotten until the last minute," says Lee. "As a result, many a pediatrician or allergist's office will get a big rush of families looking for refills right before the first day of school. With so many orders coming in all at once, it can be hard to fill them all. The best way to avoid delay is to beat the rush; so checking medication supplies sooner rather than later is a very good habit to develop."
To Learn more about Boston Children's Food Allergy Program or to speak with one of our food allergy experts, visit the program's website.