Starting a New School Year with Food Allergies: Preschool
This is one of a series of posts to help parents and teachers as they prepare for the upcoming school year. Please note that the information below is based on my personal experience and should not take the place of guidance provided by your child's food allergy medical team. This is simply a guide that I feel may be helpful to those navigating the new school year with a food allergic child.
My son Cade had his reaction to peanut butter the week before he was to start preschool. Could the timing be any worse than that? I was already nervous about sending my shy, quiet little guy off to school for the first time, but now I was settling in on the reality that he could have a life-threatening allergic reaction to a food that is a staple in a large majority of preschoolers' diets. Understandably, the prospect of preschool terrified me.
I know I'm not alone in this sentiment. For starters, most children are diagnosed with their allergies during the preschool years, so the "newness" of it all is overwhelming in and of itself. Then there's the fact that preschoolers are just so little. Many kids this age (and this included my younger son Luke) are not very verbal; they love to put fingers, toys and heaven knows what else into their mouths, while simultaneously putting their hands all over their friends. Then there are all of the lessons, crafts and celebrations that revolve around food. Really, preschool has all the makings of a perfect food allergy storm.
But before you get too discouraged, there are a number of things that make preschool a place to find comfort. The beauty of school at this age is that class sizes are much smaller, so, everything - including snack and meal time - is easier to manage. Private preschools may also have more autonomy than their larger, public school counterparts, thereby allowing for more flexibility in food allergy policy (like peanut and tree nut-free classrooms). And most parents have a choice when it comes to preschool; it may be easier at this age to handpick a facility with the types of food allergy policies that make you most comfortable.
So, here's the good news: if you are starting preschool with your food allergic child, there are steps you can take to overcome the things that scare you and make the most of the advantages that you are offered.
Start by finding a school that takes food allergies seriously. If you are able, take advantage of the opportunity to to find a school with concrete policies in place to ensure your child's safety. I was so grateful for our preschool placing my boys in peanut and tree nut-free classrooms each year. Our school also required that epi-pens were kept in the classroom with the kids (not locked away in another location in the school) and carried with the teacher everywhere the kids traveled. So, wherever my boys were - from the classroom to the playground - their epi pens were safely in the hands of the adult in charge. That's what a rock-solid food allergy policy looks like, and these provisions are absolutely reasonable. It's okay if policy is a "make it, or break it" variable for you when choosing a preschool.
Partner with your teachers. Get to know your teacher well. I can honestly say that I consider many of my kids' preschool teachers personal friends now, and I attribute that to the close working relationship that we developed when my children were in their classes. Here are a list of things that are most important to consider when working with your teacher over the course of the year:
Lunch/snack time. You'll need to discuss a plan for eating in the classroom. Here are a few questions to consider: Is there a designated place where my child will sit and lunch and snack time where he or she will be protected, and what does that look like? For snack, do parents provide a class snack? If so, do you prefer that I send a safe snack in with my child daily, or provide you with a bulk supply of snacks all at once from him/her to chose from each day?
Classroom Activities: Like I mentioned earlier, food is used a lot during preschool instruction. Little kids learn well when they are able to creatively connect to concepts, so this makes sense. But, its essential that this is done safely when students with food allergies are involved. Make sure that your teacher always tells you when food is going to be used in the classroom. And, let your teacher know that you are happy to help her come up with a safe alternative for instruction. Serving "green eggs" in the classroom may not work for Dr. Seuss week, but I bet your teacher would be open to making cool Cat in the Hat striped hats for all of the kids to wear instead. Let your teachers know you are happy to help, then jump in!
Class Parties: This is a biggie - preschool is class party central. First, make sure that your teacher always keeps you in the loop about the menu for class parties. A lot of preschools allow for homemade goodies, so keep in mind that other parents may not be aware of cross-contamination dangers when they are cooking in their own kitchens. Be willing to bring in safe food for your child at parties (maybe replicating what the others are eating), and don't hesitate to be the first to sign up to bring something allergy-free for the entire class so that your child feels included. I always volunteered to make dessert at my boys' preschool parties since "sweets" are our greatest food allergy landmine; if you can, take that danger off the table (pun, intended).
Teach your kids about their allergies. One of my very wise friends (who actually happens to have an anaphylactic allergy herself) told me that even before her peanut-allergic son learned to read, she taught him what the word PEANUT looked like. She took him the store, picked packages off the shelf and practiced with him. This is brilliant! Sure, our preschoolers are just learning their ABC's, but it's never too early to talk with your child freely and often about their food allergies. Just like us adults, kids feel empowered when they have knowledge. Don't hesitate to give that gift to your child as soon as you possibly can.
Yes, preschool is scary. But, it has the potential to be a period of time that your family looks back on as one of its greatest blessings. Work hard to find the perfect preschool fit, and then nurture the relationships within your school. Every child deserves a preschool experience that is both safe and FUN, and that includes yours!
For more in this special back-to-school series, please refer to the Food Allergy Resources tab of my website and click "Allergy Safe at School."