If you have a child with food allergies heading back to school can feel like an overwhelming task. New teachers mean new challenges, but with a little bit of preparation you can give your child a safe and happy school year.
If you have a child of school age with a moderate to severe allergy chances are you’re pretty well-versed on how to manage a reaction. But can the same be said for your child’s teachers? Whether you’re sending your little one off to school or day care for the very first time, or simply preparing for a new school or new teachers, you need to be prepared to do a little teaching yourself.
At the start of a new school year it is hugely important to educate your child’s teachers and other school professionals about any specific allergies that may affect your child. Even if your child is attending the same school, teachers change and information may not necessarily be passed on. Here are four tips that will help make this school year a safe and happy one
Ask about training
If your child has a life-threatening food allergy the first thing you need to know is what type of training your child’s teacher has received.
“Ask the school what training they have in place for anaphylaxis and how often it is updated,” suggests Stephanie Holdsworth, registered nurse and mother to a four-year-old with severe allergies. “Ask if the teacher has ever had to issue an adrenaline auto-injector and, if not, make sure they understand how it works and are confident in the procedure required to administer the dose correctly,” she says.
Under the Australian Children’s and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA), early childhood centres and after school care providers must have one person on site qualified in anaphylaxis management and asthma first aid from January 2013. Permanent, temporary and casual teachers also must complete an anaphylaxis e-training course and schools where students have been diagnosed as being at risk of anaphylaxis also must undergo specialist training. This includes practical instruction on how to use an adrenaline auto-injector.
However, with one in three Australians living with allergies this basic education may not be enough. “I don’t think it’s too much to ask that teachers undertake this life saving education yearly as it is easy for educators to underestimate the severity of some allergies,” says Stephanie. “Make sure your child’s teacher understands that anaphylaxis can occur during exposure, not just ingestion,” she suggests.
Talk about food bans
Some schools will have blanket bans on foods such as peanuts to protect against anaphylaxis but even if your child’s allergy is moderate it’s a good idea to understand what bans or procedures are in place to protect your child.
“Ask the educator what the policy is for other children bringing foods to school that contain your child’s allergen,” suggests Stephanie. “It is impossible to ban all foods that children are allergic to but you need to know what the procedure is for minimising the risk of your child having a reaction. For example, if your child is allergic to strawberries is there a plan in place to have children who are consuming strawberries sitting at a different table? Are they made to wash their hands and mouths after eating?”
Birthdays can be especially challenging, especially if cakes are brought in to celebrate. Ask if you can be notified in advance of your child’s classmates’ birthdays so you can make a special batch of cupcakes or provide alternate treats so your child isn’t excluded from the celebration, proposes Stephanie.
Discuss the early warning signs
Children — even older ones — aren’t always the best communicators. So if your child has had a reaction before, explain any early warning signs you may have noticed to your child’s teacher to help them keep ahead of the game.
It’s also a good idea to discuss the words your child might use when trying to describe an allergic reaction. Young children might have more difficulty in recognising an allergic reaction, but may say that their tongue feels hot, hairy or tastes funny. Providing a list of words or phrases your child may use to your child’s teacher, along with any specific warning signs, can be helpful.
Provide an action plan
If your child has been diagnosed with anaphylaxis you will have been issued with an “anaphylaxis action plan” by your specialist. This plan outlines the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis, outlines how to use an adrenaline auto-injector, lists your child’s allergies and the steps that must be taken if a reaction occurs. Make sure you update the photo of your child regularly and run through the action plan with each of your child’s teachers every year.
“Along with the plan, make sure your child’s teachers know where your child’s medication will be stored,” says Stephanie. “Depending on the age of the child and the school, some children will keep it in their bag, some will have it stored in the office and some will keep it in their classroom,” she says.
Finally, the most important piece of advice you can give your child’s educator is if they suspect an allergic reaction they need to administer medication immediately. “An emergency specialist once told me that they would rather a thousand children come through the department for monitoring as a result of having an adrenaline auto-injector administered than have to fight for the life of just one because it wasn’t,” says Stephanie.