Photo Credit: Amazing and Atopic – THANK YOU!
After the interwebs uproar over everyone’s right (or not) to party in the classroom I decided to finish this article I started writing awhile ago. This is all about how I manage my child’s food allergies in the classroom when it comes to classroom parties. My daughter is now in middle school and through her elementary school years we learned a lot on how to help her teacher’s manage food allergies in the classroom. My son is now in the first grade and his allergies are managed completely differently because his are not as severe.
Every child is different. Every school, school district and teacher is different. These are just general tips to help provide some alternatives to help ease the potential classroom wars over “death cupcakes”.
These tips may also help those with special medical related dietary restrictions as well.
Know Your Situation and Educate Yourself
Your biggest asset and ammunition is going to be empowering yourself with education. Become very informed, knowledgeable and make sure you are clear on the misinformation out there. The more informed you are the better you are able to appropriately advocate for your child.
The first thing you should ask yourself and your child’s doctor is, “How severe is the risk?” – Yes, there is a huge difference between an anaphylactic reaction and an upset stomach. It is important that you always act appropriately in the best interest of your child.
If your child needs an epi-pen then proceed appropriately and know your rights. A life threatening reaction needs extra steps and care to make the classroom manageable and safe. You will want to look into a 504 Plan and discuss it with your child’s doctor. A 504 Plan includes accommodations so that your child has safe access to all school activities in public and even most private schools. It will also include an emergency and health plan to ensure that your child’s needs are met in case of an allergic reaction. With a 504 plan it legally protects your child under the ADA American’s with Disabilities Act. It will become your trump card in situations where you may find yourself frustrated with the lack of accommodations or support from other parents, teachers and even faculty.
If your child has a disability that can be triggered by food then this can also apply towards your situation. Again, seek the advice of a medical professional.
In some situations your child may be best suited with an IDEA plan or IEP. There is a lot of information out there on the differences between all of these accommodations so I am not going to go into too much detail about them.
I also suggest speaking to a local advocacy program that can inform you of your child’s rights within your school district and county. I’ve worked with a couple and they were a plethora of information.
If your child’s food allergies or dietary restrictions are not life threatening that does NOT mean you do not have rights or that you cannot find appropriate accommodations. You will probably have an easier time if your child’s food allergies or dietary restrictions aren’t life threatening – at least that is what I have experienced with my son’s needs compared to my daughters.
No matter what category you are in you should know the following:
What are all of your child’s food allergies?
How does your child need to avoid these allergens? Airborne? Contact? Ingestion?
What medications does your child take?
What are the type of reactions your child has?
How does your child describe their reactions?
Does your child know their medications, dosage and how to administer them properly?
You will want to discuss these things with an allergist and work out the details on what is the best approach for your child. To be perfectly honest – a parent’s opinion doesn’t hold as much weight as a doctor’s request. You will want your child’s medical team to chime in on these facts so that any hurdles along the way you can have that added protection. Don’t expect your doctor to do all of the work for you but they can be a safety net, resource and support system.
After you have a clear picture of what your child needs at school it is time to find out what policies are in place with the school district and school. Sometimes a lot of the concerns you may have are easily resolved without having to do much work.
For example: Many school districts ban classroom food related parties or classroom parties in general. For some reason a lot of people like to blame food allergy families. However, this has a lot more to do with taking away classroom instruction time, liability and education disruption. Holiday parties are also a topic of debate so many schools have opted to remove classroom parties to make it fair for all. If this policy is in place then, hopefully, the school complies with the district policies and that removes any of the battles for parties inside the classroom.
Of course some schools or teachers ignore these types of policies and will allow things to slide. That is why becoming informed is important and proceeding in the way that suits your circumstances.
Some schools ban allergies and are very food allergy friendly. Some schools have found themselves in the news because parents have asked for a child with food allergies to be homeschooled. It is all situational and test scores become the least of our worries when we start evaluating a school for our food sensitive children.
You may wonder what the best method is to gather the information on policies. I go directly to the school district, nursing services and special needs department first. Most schools have the information posted publicly or you can request policies.
Then I approach the school. If you know your child and can explain your situation clearly and show an understanding of school policies and procedures it makes the world of difference.
There is a big difference between what some parents may feel they should get, what their child is legally entitled to and what is possible. Unfortunately, many uninformed and unreasonable parents have made headlines and created big waves demanding accommodations that aren’t possible which can make it difficult to create that clean slate for your child. Yes, we want our children to be safe, included and happy but there is a balance and work goes along with achieving this. It starts with us.
If you act like a crazy freakaziod parent you will probably be treated like one.
Treat everyone at that school as if they are a part of your team and you are all in this together. It is not you and your child against them. Be patient, understanding and strong. I cannot emphasize that enough.
My daughter’s first principal is one of my favorite people on this planet and I mean that sincerely. He was such an amazing amount of support for her. We learned a lot together on our road of managing her very specific, severe and difficult allergies at school. That was a relationship that grew over time and if I acted like a jerkface I am sure it wouldn’t have played out the way it did. Not to say he didn’t see me have some very bad, angry and on the verge of losing my mind moments but the point is that I went into it as this person is my ally – not my enemy. It worked out.
You won’t always find supportive faculty staff. That is just the reality of it. Even if food allergies weren’t a factor there are just some people on the school grounds that you seriously wonder why they are even allowed to be around children. You have to accept that and just know how to work around some people’s quirks and know who you can rely on. You will not be able to get everyone on the team of food allergy awesomeness but you can figure out how to work with them anyway.
Always show genuine appreciation for those on your team who get it and have your back and hopefully you will find more awesome team members than sucky ones.
I also suggest doing all of this before your child begins school. Start early, prepare long before most kids enter school and before you start going to kindergarten tours. It is also good to get the ball rolling early so that the school may be able to place your child with a teacher that doesn’t have a heavily food focused program or one that is just known for being especially accommodating for special needs. It is better to get matched to the right teacher for your child than try to change one who is the worst match possible.
Believe me, I know this from experience.
In the Classroom – Teachers Rock
Your child’s teacher is going to become one of the most important people in your lives for that entire school year. When your baby isn’t with you he/she will be with their teacher. That teacher has anywhere from twenty to well over thirty other students to take care of, wrangle, educate and inspire. Teaching is not an easy job and I respect my teacher friends and family completely because they deal with more insanity than we can’t even imagine.
I’m not a butt kissing kind of person. I’m too authentic for that. I’ve had anywhere from texting/facebooking/socializing friendships with my kid’s teachers to cordial volunteering and holiday gifts relationships. I bring this up because I’ve seen on forums that parents should bribe and kiss a teachers butt for preferential treatment.
I’m against this whole butt kissing to get what you want attitude in school completely. I do think you can respect a teacher, be helpful and adore everything they do without being a fake sycophant.
Having said all that I do think that parents should be exceptionally generous to our rockin teachers when it comes to gifts. Why? Simply because they deserve it not because parents should be crawling up their butts.
What does a teacher really need from you?
Patience first and support next. Your child’s teacher is going to be the person who is going to have to be the buffer between other parents and the classroom. If there is any flack for policies or accommodations because of your child’s food allergies then the teacher is going to get it. The teacher is going to need you to be patience and supportive in any way you can. Sometimes things may become difficult for you, your child and the teacher so they are going to need you as much as you need them. It’s not easy to advocate for one in a crowd of thirty even if it is their job.
If possible volunteer as much as you can and especially during field trips and class parties. Don’t be a pest about it but be present, helpful and full of awesomeness.
You will want to discuss how your child’s teacher manages food related parties in the classroom.
What is the policy on classroom party or holiday celebrations?
What about birthday parties?
If parties are allowed then you have to weigh two things – if your child has a severe allergy do you want to push for a no party policy OR can a non-food related party option be offered? What about store bought and approved allergy friendly foods that are safe for everyone to eat? What if they party outside of the classroom and you provide alternatives? The goal is to keep the learning environment safe first.
My son’s allergies are not as severe as my daughter’s. Ever since preschool I have offered allergy friendly snacks and provide them. His teachers keep the snacks on hand and he is happy to have his own treat when other food is offered that he cannot have. I am fine with this. He is fine with this. A lot of parents ask me what allergy friendly goodies they can provide for him for birthdays and holidays and I am beyond appreciative of it. I don’t demand it. It works for his situation.
My daughter is a different story. She cannot physically come into contact with some of her allergens without breaking out in hives. If she touches that allergen and it gets into her mouth, eyes or nasal passages it can be fatal. Classroom parties cannot happen around her. Period. It can kill her.
Alternatives have been parties outside, on the grass or lunch benches, at the end of the day before school lets out where she has a treat she can safely have that we provide or everyone gets an allergy friendly snack. Her classroom has to be free of the allergens so when she is sitting at her desk to learn she can learn without being at risk. Yes, this has cause some serious problems with pushy parents and not so strict teachers. This is where her 504 Plan and IEP became necessary.
Once a parent had pushed a classroom party with food that wasn’t safe, the teacher folded, money had already been collected for this unapproved party and my daughter was going to be in a very high risk situation. I was furious. She was devastated. Canceling it would have meant possible social backlash for her and myself because of the parents behind it. The party was outside, my daughter and friends got to party with the principal for an hour and it all worked out. It was a choice to be flexible and find an alternative and it worked out.
It also never happened again.
I try to do everything possible to offer reasonable alternatives that make peace because she’s gotta learn to be flexible while being a great advocate for herself. Life is full of choices and she does learn that sometimes situations aren’t accommodating but we can find kick butt solutions that are more fun anyway. Be open to reasonable alternatives that don’t put your child at risk.
Unfortunately, not everyone is reasonable so sometimes I throw down her disability rights card over their death cupcakes and they can juice up on the hate-o-rade all they want.
Popsicle parties are a huge hit. A bigger hit over cupcakes and donuts on a hot day. Allowing younger children to have a bubble party on the grass before school lets out is also a hit. A special reading time, pajama and movie party or even an “electronics day” are awesome alternatives. My point is that the possibilities are truly endless that a school celebration doesn’t have to focus on any kind of food.
Sometimes teachers want to offer a class party as an incentive and it is part of their lesson plan so try to work with them on it. I have, on many occasions, provided the teacher with snacks for the entire classroom that were allergy friendly so that he/she did not have to worry about reading ingredients or making a mistake. I donate these to the school or classroom and I am happy to do so. I know that not everyone can make this happen but if it is within your abilities then it’s a wonderful way to give back to the school.
I can’t set out an exact plan for you or your child when it comes to school. There are just way too many variables and circumstances. I find that every year changes for us so I can imagine you are all dealing with an ever changing deck as well.
My approach hasn’t been without hurdles. It’s far from flawless. I am the first to provide as many reasonable alternatives, resources and support but I am also the absolute first to throw a verbal choke slam down and sprinkle it with some word-fu as needed to make sure my daughter is safe. My daughter’s health situation is very difficult and life threatening. On top of her having food allergies she also has juvenile idiopathic arthritis, an autoimmune disease, eczema, asthma and chronic urticaria. She is a happy, thriving and amazing self advocate who has known a lot of unfortunate struggles. I never thought she would be able to attend middle school safely but she is now.
The biggest compliments I’ve ever received have to do with how amazing, well informed and strong she is when it comes to her health and struggles.
I’m not a medical professional. I’m just like every other allergy parent out there. All I can offer everyone reading this is some insight into our world and hope that it helps in some way. It’s not easy and I’ve been on this road for awhile now and will continue ninja kicking, with my allergy princess of doom by my side, to happiness in this seemingly selfish death cupcake filled world.
Oh and feel free to comment or drop me an email with any questions you have about food allergies. I can offer advice, support and encouragement to help our ever expanding food allergy community.
Thank you all for stopping by.
Live, laugh and ninja kick.