What steps should you take to help keep your child safe from food allergy reactions in school? How to make sure your child with food allergies isn’t excluded? How to empower your child to advocate for themself in a school setting? This back-to-school guide covers everything you need to know.
On average, two children in every classroom have some type of food allergy. Even though the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has established national guidelines for managing food allergies in schools, it’s still vital for you as a parent to be proactive about protecting your child from their food allergen(s) in school. What steps should you take for a safe and inclusive school year for your child? This back-to-school guide covers everything you need to know.
Managing Food Allergies in Schools: The Essentials
Prepare and present a Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Emergency Care Plan. This plan, created by Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), outlines what must be done to keep your child safe in case of a food allergy emergency. Provide this along with EpiPens and any other medication that helps keep your child safe.
As part of this plan, establish where your child’s EpiPens will be stored at school, who has access, and who will administer the EpiPen in case of an emergency.
Have a detailed discussion with the school nurse about food allergy management and treatment. Also, ask that if your child feels unwell, they always have someone to supervise them if they need to walk to the nurse, restroom, or anywhere else in school (in case clearer reaction symptoms emerge and they need emergency help.
Create a 504 plan to outline the accommodations your child needs. Children with food allergies are eligible for a 504 plan, a plan that outlines the accommodations children with disabilities need to receive a safe and appropriate education. Food allergies are considered a “disability” under the 504 plan, because they can impair daily life activities, like eating and breathing, and could get in the way of your child’s right to educational access. This 504 plan is the written blueprint of requirements to provide a safe learning environment for your child. It goes beyond the emergency care plan to create an inclusive space.
Learn more about creating a 504 plan, and what should be included in the plan, from school psychologist and food allergy mom Marissa Leitner.
Review the CDC school food allergy management guidelines and any specific allergy rules your school already has in place, and be prepared to address any concerns.
Build community to protect your child. Food allergy management in school is a team effort! You’ll need to talk to, and develop relationships with, everyone who plays a role in keeping your child safe. This includes their teachers, the school nurse, the principal and other administrators, cafeteria and janitorial staff, bus drivers, coaches and activity leaders, other parents, and the other students in your child’s classmates. Educate them on what it means to have a food allergy, share what they need to know to keep your child safe, and let them know how they can reach you with questions or concerns.
Some ways that the community can help protect your child include, but are not limited to:
- Talk to your child’s teacher(s) about the role of food in the classroom, and ask that foods with your child’s allergen not be eaten or served in their classroom(s).
- Ask that letters be sent home to parents of your child’s classmates, to educate them on food allergies and any related classroom policies.
- Ask that your child have access to their own school supplies if they can’t be easily cleaned. For shared equipment like computer keyboards, ask that they be wiped down right before your child uses them.
- Remember that school food allergy management also includes bus rides, if your child takes the bus. Educate your child’s bus driver on your child’s allergy, and discuss any bus rules and accommodations needed to keep your child safe. Also, make sure the bus driver knows how to use an EpiPen, and ask that the bus driver pull over and call 911 if an EpiPen is administered on the bus.
For more on managing food allergies in schools, watch this video from the Living Teal Channel:
Safety During School Meals
Determine whether you’ll pack your child’s lunch, whether your child will eat certain cafeteria foods that don’t contain their allergen, or both.
If they are eating food from the cafeteria, make sure that food preparation staff are trained on how to avoid cross-contamination.
Ask that students wash their hands right before and right after eating, so residue from foods with your child’s allergen does not cross-contaminate your child’s eating area or classroom.
Decide how the seating arrangements for school meals should be handled.
If you’d like your child to sit at an allergen-free table, ask for signs to be placed at the table, and ask that someone monitor the table to make sure allergens don’t get placed there. Also, make sure that your child won’t have to sit alone.
If you don’t feel that your child needs an allergen-free table, but would like to create some barrier of protection, ask that anyone who sits directly next to, or across from, your child does not eat any foods that contain your child’s allergen.
Your child should never trade, accept, or share others’ food at any time during the school day, including during school meals.
Be sure that all adults in the cafeteria (both staff and volunteers) know which students have food allergies, how to identify an allergic reaction, and how to respond in case of an allergy emergency.
Ask for the tables and seating your child sits at to be washed every day before they sit down. It should be washed with a soap-and water solution and a sponge that has not come in contact with your child’s allergen. This will help stop potential cross-contamination.
If the school asks students to clean up wider areas after their meal period, ask that your child only be required to clean their own eating area, so they don’t come in contact with their allergen.
Tips for Avoiding and Preventing Social Exclusion
Children with food allergies are often excluded from activities because of their allergy. Here are some tips to prevent social exclusion.
- Ask that all activities, lesson plans and crafts be free from your child’s allergen. All students in the classroom should be able to do the same activity. Your child shouldn’t have to do a different or “substitute” activity where they can’t participate with the rest of the class.
- Ask for advance notice about any field trips and extracurricular activities, so you can address any food allergy concerns and make sure your child has safe meal and snack options to eat. A food allergy shouldn’t keep your child away from the fun.
- If there is an upcoming celebration in your class that could involve food, ask to be notified at least two days in advance so your child could bring a similar but safe treat. That way, your child won’t feel left out.
- Even better, offer to supply allergen-free treats for the entire class, so your child can eat what everyone else does. Or, encourage inclusive classroom celebrations that don’t involve food, like this glow party idea from Allergy Superheroes.
- Encourage non-food rewards in the classroom, such as toy rewards and/or teacher-approved activity privileges (“Sit in the VIP seat,” “homework pass,” extra recess,” etc.)
- Think about adding a “no home-prepared foods in the classroom” policy to your child’s 504 plan, to help minimize potentially excluding situations.
- Have your teacher keep a “just-in case” supply of safe snacks and special treats in the classroom for your child, in case an unexpected special occasion comes up. Ask to be notified when the supply is getting low, so you can restock.
- Consider working with your school’s or district’s wellness committee to help set up classroom policies against serving unhealthy foods. This will both help keep kids healthy and help cut down on the serving of allergy-unsafe foods that could lead to exclusion.
Avoiding and Preventing Bullying
Around one-third of kids with food allergies have been bullied because of their food allergy. Bullying may include teasing about foods your child can’t eat, taunting them with an unsafe food, throwing an unsafe food at them, or trying to force them to eat (or touch) a food that contains the allergen. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help prevent allergy-related bullying.
Teach your child how to recognize and respond to bullying. If they are bullied, they should say “leave me alone” or “stop” with confidence, walk away from the situation, and tell a teacher or other trusted adult. They should also let you know after school.
If your child tells you they are being bullied, calmly reassure them that you’re here to help. Then, approach your child’s teacher and school administrators about the bullying. Don’t confront the bully directly.
Make sure that your child’s school has a strong and proactive anti-bullying program.
As part of, or in addition to, the anti-bullying program, ask school staff (such as teachers, counselors, nurses, or administrators) to offer educational programming on food allergies. This should include why food allergies are serious and can be life-threatening, how to keep peers with food allergies safe, and how to recognize and report allergy-related bullying. FARE’S Be A PAL program, and the resources on the No Appetite For Bullying website, provide a great starting point for this programming.
Empower Your Child
Teach your child how to be a self-advocate and make good choices that protect them from dangerous situations in school --- and how to respond in case an allergic reaction does occur.
- Talk to your child about their allergy and age-appropriate aspects of general food allergy management.
- Prepare your child to tell adults and peers, “I am allergic to [name of allergen].”
- Teach your child to refuse unsafe food, and to say “No thank you. I have food allergies.” when someone offers to share food. (Even if a list of ingredients is available, it is best to avoid sharing.)
- Prepare your child to explain how eating their allergen around them can be dangerous, and to ask someone who is eating their allergen to not eat it around them (or simply move away).
- Teach your child how to recognize an allergic reaction.
- Teach your child how to communicate to adults that they are having an allergic reaction if one does occur at school (including asking for an EpiPen).
- If they are old enough, involve your child in the discussion (or let them lead discussions) about managing their food allergies at school, including how someone will need to inject an EpiPen during a food allergy emergency.
- Also, if your child is old enough, consider letting your child be responsible for carrying their own epinephrine auto-injector to school. Explain that they must keep it with them at all times.
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