Starting a New School Year with Food Allergies: the Little Things
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.
So, you've come up with a food allergy plan for your child - now what? Like I said in my first post in this series, your child's allergies have afforded you a tremendous opportunity. As food allergy parents, we can wade around in the awful pool of "what if's," or we can take all that ick and do something positive with it. Since those are our only two options, let me explain why choosing the latter is so important: We make our kids safer when we work hard to build strong, mutually-beneficial relationships with the people who come in contact with them each day. While our initial meetings to review food allergy plans and procedures are of utmost importance, I've realized it's actually the "little things" - day-to-day subtleties and gestures - that go the furthest when fostering crucial relationships throughout the school year. If we want to affect the way everyone from school staff to fellow parents respond to us, this is absolutely the way to do it.
Set the Tone. I've always said that kids are way better than adults about food allergies. Why? Because right now in the United States, *one in every 13 children has a food allergy. That's roughly two in every elementary school classroom. This is what our kids know. They are used to it, but the adults are just catching up (and the truth is, not everyone is enthusiastic about overcoming the learning curve). Listen, there is no one who understands better than me how frustrating it is when people do not "get" our food allergies. When I hear people downplay or even discount my family's reality, it hurts. But, you know what I've learned? Even if it feels like no one around me understands, my posture means everything. As a friend recently put it, the only way people are going to listen is if they want to take two steps towards us - not two steps back. I will get nowhere if I take on a defensive tone or walk around with a chip on my shoulder. It's so important that I am approachable, listen to others, and try and remember how I saw the world before my kids were diagnosed with their allergies. Please don't misunderstand, this does not mean that any of us should let down our guards or avoid fighting for what's right when it comes to our kids' safety. All it means is that we should do so out of love - not defensiveness, preachiness, or anger. People can feel the difference. It always pays to draw others toward us!
Appreciate Your Teacher. I am a former teacher, so I'm admittedly biased here. But, I will tell you from personal experience - and from knowing MANY educators in my life - that the primary reason why teachers chose this profession is because they love kids. Period. Your teacher does not want to see your child hurt, especially on their watch. Think about that for a minute. The same goes for your entire school staff. This doesn't mean that our school policies are perfect in this country; that is the point of this post. If we want to affect change, we have to come at it the right way. The first step is to acknowledge that your child's teacher is not the enemy; he or she is your biggest and most important ally this school year. Together you will be so much more effective in keeping your child safe than either of you could ever do on your own. So, get to know your teacher, personally. Take a sincere interest in him or her. Ask what you can do throughout the year to make your teacher's job easier. (The answer can be anything from volunteering your time to sending in supplies; if you can swing it, do it.) And while you're at it, use any opportunity you have to educate him or her about food allergies. You have no idea how your teacher's increased knowledge might impact future students down the road.
Become Best Friends with the School Nurse. Seriously, I'm not joking. The school nurse is the most underappreciated person in most school buildings. They are responsible for more than most of us will ever be able to wrap our heads around. And, their job is serious. Yes, of course they manage typical issues like fevers and tummy aches, but they also watch the clock all day long so that they know exactly when to check their diabetic students' blood sugar and give their asthmatic kids a puff of their inhalers. They deal with broken bones and injuries that need stitches. And, if your child is having an allergic reaction, I can guarantee that your school nurse is going to be the first person called. Know your nurse well. Make sure he or she knows your child by name. Stop by the clinic to say a quick hello when you come by the school, and make sure your child does so every now and then, too. Bring him or her coffee "just because." Make sure this crucial ally knows that you understand how hard the job is, which is why you are so appreciative and grateful for the fact that he or she is there. Our nurses are invaluable.
Here's the kicker: If we get the "little things" right, we might actually change the way the people around us see food allergies. That is huge. Whether you are dealing with teachers and staff, or other parents at your school, please don't ever miss an chance to draw people in. Appreciate those who work so hard to keep your child safe each day. And, seize the opportunity to take something negative and turn it around. You may never know the lasting impact of that choice!
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."