September 14, 2011

Food Allergies in school: our successes

Ryken's first day of first grade

My eldest, Ryken, is in his fourth week of first grade.  So far the transition to a longer day (with lunch!), a new school, and learning in Spanish and English has gone as well as I could have hoped.  I am thankful to the wonderful staff at his school for making our family feel welcome and safe from the very start!  If you didn't think that a principal, a school nurse, or teachers could make a big difference in a student's life, our experience has proved they sure can.

Here are a list of things, little and big, that have helped to create a safer environment for both my milk-allergic and nut-allergic kiddos:

  1. At the end of the previous school year before summer vacation for teachers and staff, I emailed the school nurse and principal with details about Ryken's food allergies and history of reactions.  The school nurse was especially grateful to have this information in advance so that she could put Ryken on her radar for the new school year. 
  2. Fast forward to August registration -- our day to pick up teacher assignments, sign up for PTA, and all that jazz.  I stopped by the main office to turn in our doctor-completed Food Allergy Action Plan , some more detailed instructions and a personalized letter, and emergency medications.  We saw the school secretary and principal who both remembered Ryken by name and welcomed him to the school.  Ryken was so shocked that he was recognized.  I could tell it made him feel like a rock star!  Another secretary made copies of the FAAP, letters, and instructions for the school nurse and both Ryken's English and Spanish teachers.  
  3. Three days later I received an email from Ryken's English teachers.  She thanked me for my information and wanted Ryken and me to meet with the first grade team before the school year began.  As it turns out, his English teacher has a child who has had to carry an Epi-pen since elementary school -- she completely understood my fears!
  4. So the day before school, Ryken got to meet his teachers, I talked with them about the severity of his allergies, and we agreed on having all kids using hand sanitizer after recess and wet wipes after lunch to try to avoid contact allergies.  And Ryken would be washing before any eating time, a practice he normally does.  On our way out of the meeting, we ran into one of the Kindergarten teachers who recognized Ryken and gave us a warm welcome to the school.  I had never met the teacher before so I assume the staff had recently been briefed on students requiring possible emergency medications such as Epi-pens and inhalers.  Glad I popped a picture of Ryken on his FAAP and my personal directions!
  5. On the second day of school the principal checked in with me.  He told me he was halfway through the online anaphylaxis training course for educators that I had forwarded to him. He also wanted to check in with me to see how Ryken's transition was going.  I mentioned that Ryken said he didn't know when or where he could wash his hands after lunch recess (at his school, playtime is first and then kids walk directly to the lunchroom for a 15-minute lunch).  The principal gave us a quick, personal tour of how the kids would walk from yard to lunchroom, showed Ryken where he could break off for a bathroom detour and how to take a shortcut back into the lunchroom. Ryken hasn't missed a handwashing since!
  6. During the first week, Ryken's teachers taught the class about Ryken's food allergies.  They read books like this, talked about things that Ryken cannot eat and what might happen if he eats or is touched by certain foods, the importance of keeping hands clean and no food sharing.  They also started a buddy system at lunch: two kids would get the chance to sit next to Ryken so long as they didn't have any nuts or milk* in their lunch.  (*Milk meaning cartons or bottle of milk.  It's hard to explain about the cheese and processed foods with whey, but thankfully, Ryken is pretty good about backing away these products.)  
  7. It became clear to the observant lunch staff and principal that Ryken was surrounded by potential risks at his tightly packed class lunch table.  The school did not have a nut-free lunch table previously but one was set up a couple days after the start of school. Ryken feels much safer now!
  8. The school nurse sent me a warm email to welcome us to school and invited us to stop by at any time.  I visited her at the end of the first week of school when we discussed what I thought would be the best way to inform class parents about Ryken's food allergies.  The school nurse had a form letter about severe nut allergies.  I drafted a letter about Ryken's situation (which included talking about his severe milk allergy and his suspected kiwi allergy).  I thought there were pros and cons of sending the official school letter versus my personal letter.  In the end, I let the teachers decide what they felt would be most effective without inundating the parents, many of whom are fluent in Spanish but not in English.  The teachers distributed the school's nut allergies letter.  At Back to School Night they also reiterated that a student has severe food allergies and parents *should not* pack nut products in lunches or bring any food treats for birthdays.  
  9. My younger son started preschool this week.  Over the summer, I informed his teachers about his allergies, which are very similar to their old student's, Ryken's.  :)  His teachers continue their nut-free policy and strict handwashing before school and before/after eating.  They will only serve dairy-free food snacks on his attendance days.  They do serve cow's milk but always offer soy milk as an alternative and do so in a clearly marked pitcher.
  10. I received my FAST posters from Food Anaphylaxis Canada and have given them to both my kids' teachers.  Hope to see these up in the classrooms and lunch areas.  Even though staff receive Epi-Pen training, these FAST posters are helpful as quick reminders of symptoms for trained staff as well as less allergy-aware parent volunteers.
Overall, I feel really lucky that both of my kids' schools have been very receptive to my concerns.  This should be the norm but I know it is not.  Ryken felt nervous those first days of school especially in the lunchroom and when a classmate's mom appeared with heavily frosted cupcakes.  Since then, with the disclosure of his allergies to the class, the nut-free table added, daily wet wipes for everyone, nut-free signs outside the class, and simply being shown where the nearest bathroom to the lunchroom is, I feel like Ryken is thinking more about recess play and figuring out what his Spanish teacher is saying -- you know, the things that a non-food-allergic kid in his situation should be concerned about.

I will definitely pipe up if I feel like more needs to be done to protect the kids from milk contact and if "no sweets in the class"policy is starting to slide.  So far, I am really impressed with the prompt and sensitive responses we have received from all levels of staff at the schools.

Do you have a child in school this year?  Share with us some positive experiences you've had in your school community!


  1. Thanks for the great post! Super informative! And thanks for including the link to your personalized letter. (The link to the FAAP doesn't seem to work though.)

  2. Thanks, Teri. Thanks for letting me know about the hyperlink error. All fixed now. :)