Back to School with a Food Intolerance

Back to School with a Food Intolerance

Food intolerances are not easy for the children and families who manage them on a daily basis. Having an intolerance diagnosed is just the first part of a long journey. Navigating the day-to-day activities of life becomes a constant focus for parents and children alike in an effort to maintain food safety.

When it comes to sending children off to school in the fall, stressors may begin to mount as the task of preparing for a child’s health and safety outside the home becomes paramount. The earlier parents begin the process of readying themselves and their children for that first day away from home, the safer children will be and the more relaxed parents will feel. Having an intolerance safety checklist may help with managing the tasks of making the school environment a safe place for your child. The following items are important steps to consider:

  • Obtaining a 504 plan, emergency action plan, and individual health plan
  • Determining who can or is willing to administer epinephrine once they have determined the need for it?
  • Educating the school about your child’s intolerance
  • Educating children about their intolerance
  • Determining how children are getting to and from school?
  • Arranging for after-school care
  • Managing parties and extra-curricular activities
  • Providing emergency phone numbers

The first and most important action parents can take is to communicate. In fact, communicating the details of a child’s food allergy or intolerance cannot be emphasized enough. Be pleasantly persistent and tell everyone about your child and his needs. Write the school district, speak to the school principal and to the school nurse, give instructions to teachers and to any other adult on campus that your child may have contact with, including the cafeteria staff.

Introduce yourself and make yourself known to as many people at school as possible. The greater visibility you bring to your child’s condition, the better. Although a child can have a reaction anywhere, pre-school and school-age children spend a tremendous amount of time in school where unlimited numbers of allergens may be present.

Most school districts will require a 504 plan for children with food allergies or food intolerances. The 504 plan is a legal document that applies to any school that receives federal money and covers a variety of health conditions. When a child is diagnosed with a condition that may cause potentially life-threatening reactions, the child’s condition meets the definition of a disability under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Once a 504 plan is in place, an emergency action plan is designed around the specific needs of your child. If your child has a condition that may flare up and require an injection of epinephrine (eg, EpiPen®), the plan indicates who can evaluate the need for epinephrine, knows where the pens are stored, and administers the epinephrine injection. If your child needs additional bathroom access or time in the healthcare office, these criteria are a part of an individual health plan, which is another part of the Section 504 code. Providing as much detailed information as possible is really important.

Next comes educating children about their limitations. If they are really young, teaching them one idea at a time is helpful and using terms such as “unsafe” to describe the foods that will make them sick or trigger a reaction. Showing them the foods that are unsafe is another good idea. It sometimes seems unfair to the child who may feel left out, but reminding the child of the physical consequences and how he felt after eating the wrong food is part of this important conversation.

It is never too early to begin this conversation, and it may be a vehicle to help children manage their own health and welfare as they grow and have greater awareness about their eating limitations. Having a food allergy or intolerance is stressful for a child. Having to explain why they can’t eat certain foods to others when they may not quite understand themselves can be overwhelming.

Next comes being prepared for outside food in the classroom, snacks if another family is transporting them to and from school, and goodies available if they are enrolled in an aftercare program. Although schools are changing their position on treats and sugary foods in the classroom, it is always best to have a plan in place for an impromptu celebration or school activity.

Although lists of restrictions can be provided to a teacher or caregiver, it may be easier to provide safe snacks that can be eaten during a party or special event. In fact, if it is OK with the host, it’s best to provide enough for everyone! Having special food on hand takes the guesswork out of what’s OK for your child to eat, and the child does not feel left out. Many schools are implementing a “no food sharing” policy. It might seem extreme, but some schools go so far as to suspend a student for sharing food. Food allergies and intolerances are a reality, and prevention is safer than treating an emergency.

It can be daunting and stressful having to explain over and over again the details of a child’s condition, but schools, caregivers, and family members must agree to meet a child’s needs in the event of an emergency. Educating all parties involved, especially the child, about the consequences of eating a particular food really helps set the tone for the years ahead.

Have emergency phone numbers and medical information readily available in many places throughout school and in backpacks. Be sure caregivers or school personnel know exactly what to communicate to emergency medical professionals if medical attention is required. And remind yourself and your children to have fun! It’s a team effort, and teams who play together win together.

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