It’s vital to teach your child how to keep their food allergic peers safe in school, and how to help those peers feel included. Here’s your back-to-school guide to doing just that.
It's time for your child to go back to school, and we have an important item to add to your school prep list – food allergy awareness.
Even if no one in your family has a food allergy, it’s important to teach your children how to keep kids with food allergies safe, and how to be a good friend to kids with food allergies. Here’s your back-to-school guide to doing just that.
Why is it important for everyone to practice food allergy safety and inclusion?
1 in 13 kids has a food allergy – that means, on average, two kids in every classroom have food allergies. And in recent years, the amount of kids with peanut allergies has more than tripled. So, it’s likely that there are kids with food allergies in your child’s class. And there are almost certainly kids with food allergies in your child’s school.
Food allergies are very serious. If someone eats a food they’re allergic to, this could cause their body to develop severe symptoms, and it could even be life-threatening. So, kids with food allergies have to strictly avoid their “problem foods” to stay safe.
Unfortunately, this can lead to situations where children with food allergies feel excluded. One example is how kids with food allergies must often eat different snacks than their peers during a school birthday or classroom celebration, because it’s not safe for them to eat the snack that their peers are enjoying.
Even toddlers and preschoolers notice when a child with food allergies must have a different snack, and can’t have what everyone else is having. And all kids, with or without food allergies, can understand how sad it feels to be left out.
It’s vital to teach your child how to keep their food allergic peers safe in school, and help them feel included. That way, we can all do our part to make sure school is a safe, welcoming place for everyone to learn and grow.
What happens when someone has a food allergy?
When someone has a food allergy, their immune system thinks that the food they’re allergic to is a threat to their body, and treats the proteins from that food like a harmful virus or bacteria. If they eat a food they’re allergic to, their immune system over-defends the body against that food, and triggers symptoms of an allergic reaction.
Food allergy symptoms can range from mild to severe, and can sometimes even be life-threatening. But there’s no way to predict whether a reaction will be mild or severe. And even a tiny amount of food can cause an allergic reaction. So, kids with food allergies must avoid all foods that contain their allergen(s), even in small amounts.
How to teach your kids about food allergies?
Teaching all kids about food allergies is important. When kids without food allergies know how allergies work, this helps them be more empathetic and protect their peers with food allergies.
For toddlers and preschoolers:
- Watch the Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood episode that talks about Daniel Tiger’s peach allergy. (The episode is called “Daniel's Allergy; Allergies at School.”)
- Read “Nutley, The Nut-Free Squirrel,” “Eppie the Elephant,” “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Daniel Has an Allergy,” the series “The No Biggie Bunch,” or other books about food allergies.
- Explain food allergies in simple terms: a food allergy is when certain foods make someone very sick. They have to stay away from the foods that make them sick. Sometimes, someone may need to go to the hospital if they eat the foods that make them sick.
- Teach simple examples of food allergy reaction symptoms: “They may get red bumps.” “They may feel itchy.” “Their belly may hurt.” “They may have trouble breathing.”
- Teach about the EpiPen in very simple terms – it’s medicine used to help people when they have food allergy reactions.
For elementary school students and older:
- Explain how food allergies involve the immune system, using an overview similar to the one we’ve included above.
- Cover that food allergies are serious and can be life-threatening.
- Explain that someone with a food allergy can’t even eat small amounts of a food they’re allergic to, as even a small amount could cause a reaction. They also have to make sure the food they’re allergic to doesn’t get mixed into other foods.
- Teach kids about the most common childhood food allergies (milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, wheat, soy, sesame) but also emphasize that kids can be allergic to other foods.
- You might read books that focus on keeping food allergic classmates safe, such as “Someone in My Class Has A Food Allergy” and “A Lesson for Every Child: Learning About Food Allergies.” “A Kid’s Guide To Life With Food Allergies” is also a great read for your child to learn about their classmates’ perspective, as it's written by a kid who has food allergies.
- List out different symptoms of food allergy reactions, like hives, swelling, vomiting, and difficulty breathing, and talk about what they look like.
- Teach about EpiPens in more detail: they contain medicine to stop a food allergy reaction, and they’re the only way to stop a severe reaction. They are used to save people’s lives in case of a severe allergic reaction.
How to keep kids with food allergies safe?
Foods that are harmless to your child could cause a severe allergic reaction in one of their peers. Kids with food allergies have to avoid their allergen(s) at all times, even in small amounts. Here’s how you and your child can help keep kids with food allergies safe at school:
- Teach your children: “Don’t eat food someone’s allergic to around that person!”
- When someone has a food allergy, it's dangerous to eat foods they’re allergic to when they’re nearby.
- Pieces of that “problem food” could end up in their classmate’s food and cause an allergic reaction.
- Tell kids to never share their food with classmates. Even though a food is safe for your child, it could be dangerous for their friends.
- Teach kids the habit of always washing hands, with soap and water, right after eating food.
- Washing hands helps keep small pieces of food from getting on desks, toys, and other places someone with an allergy could touch. If someone touches something with their allergen on it and then touches their mouth, this could trigger an allergic reaction.
- Teach your child the possible signs of a food allergy reaction, including hives, vomiting, swelling, and trouble breathing.
- If your child sees someone get sick (in any way) right after eating a food, they need to tell an adult right away.
- An EpiPen is the only way to stop a severe food allergy reaction.
- Check out food labels at stores together, including the allergen warnings. Look for foods that contain the allergen(s) classmates can’t eat, and classmate-safe foods that don’t contain the allergen(s). Reading labels will help your kids find snacks they can bring in that their food allergic friends can enjoy safely.
- If buying for your child’s classroom, be sure to read the labels again after you bring a food home, to make doubly sure that a food is safe for your child’s classmate(s). It's also a good practice to check in with the parents of food allergic children about snacks.
How to make sure kids with food allergies are included at school?
When everyone is fully included, no one is left out or treated as “less than.” It’s important that kids with food allergies are fully included in school and other social activities. This promotes a sense of belonging, shows children that they are valued, and helps reduce bullying.
Although many aspects of food allergy inclusion at school are in the teachers’ hands, there’s plenty you and your child can do to promote inclusion of kids with food allergies at school:
- If you’re bringing in food for your child’s birthday celebration (or another class celebration or school party), check with the parents of children with food allergies to make sure the snack is something everyone can enjoy. This way, the kids with food allergies won’t feel left out or “different.”
- If your child is interested in a classroom treat some of their peers can’t have, you might say, “I know you love [insert snack here] but that isn’t safe for everyone in your class. Let’s look for something everyone can enjoy, so everyone is included." Then, practice your label reading skills!
- Snack Safely has a great resource to help you find treats everyone in your child’s class can enjoy.
- Better yet, why not bring in non-food treats? This is something everyone can enjoy equally, allergy or no allergy. Get your child involved in picking the food-free treat!
- Pro tip: Kids love fidget toys, and there are lots of options to choose from!
- Teach kindness and respect! Being a good friend is vital.
- Kids should talk to kids with food allergies about their interests, listen to their concerns, and include them like they would anyone else.
- Kids with food allergies often get singled out or bullied, so being a friend who has their back goes a long way.
- Talk to children about what to do if they see someone with food allergies being bullied: they should tell a teacher or another trusted adult.
- Kids shouldn’t make fun of someone or negatively single them out for any reason, including an allergy.
- Food allergy bullying involves making fun of someone because of their allergy, excluding someone with an allergy, or even threatening someone with the food they’re allergic to. This is NEVER okay!
All health-related content on this website is for informational purposes only and does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the advice of your own pediatrician in connection with any questions regarding your baby’s health.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
See the FDA Peanut Allergy Qualified Health Claim at the bottom of our homepage.
What To Look For When Choosing An Early Allergen Introduction Solution
Medical guidelines recommend early allergen introduction – the earl...
Top Foods To Introduce And Avoid When Starting Solids
Learn the top foods to introduce – and the top foods to avoid feedi...