How to pick the right school for your child with food allergies

We are please to have Julie Trone from Allergy Free Table do a guest blog for us. At Center For Healthy and Happy Living, we work with many parents who are anxious to send their kids with food allergies (FA) to school. Julie provides wonderful strategies to determine what school is best for your child.
When Elika and I first talked on the phone I was so impressed by her passion for her work.  It complemented my passion for educating others about practical food allergy management.  Our business relationship took shape during that call.  This article on my experience as a parent of food allergies is the result.

I have twin boys who are energetic, curious, very enthusiastic, smart, funny, and delightful, now eleven years old.  Both of my sons have asthma, one has multiple severe food allergies, and the other severe reflux.  They have dietary restrictions as a result. 

One of the most serious and important decisions I have had to make as a parent of a child with food allergies was choosing a preschool.   At the time our FA son could not eat wheat, barley (malt), oats, rye, egg, dairy, peanut, tree nuts (all of them), or soy.  He was also contact allergic to dairy and allergic to many animals and pollens, started wearing glasses at age 3, and was born with low tone (loose connective tissue so he was wobbly).

Preschoolers, as you know, are always on the go.  They run, jump, climb, paint, learn, sing, dance….the list goes on.  This age group also is very tactile.  Their little hands are always touching their mouth, nose, eyes, and ears then other surfaces, people, food, and so on.   This was a scary thought for us.   With our son’s medical needs and physical condition we were not sure whether he could even survive preschool.  So we sketched out our needs for him to be safe in the school environment.  Most important was his needs to be safe to be taken seriously by the entire school community.  We wanted a heightened awareness and specific routines (such as hand washing after eating and crafts) to thwart any accidental exposure or ingestion.

With lots of help from friends I generated a list of six preschools then visited each one, met with the director, toured and observed the classrooms.  Before I began I prepared a list of questions to ask as follows:
                How do you manage food allergies at your school?
                What is your standard emergency procedure?  How about food allergy emergency procedure?
                Where do you keep the medication?  Is it locked up?  Who has the key?  Who can administer?
                Where do the children eat?  Are they supervised?  Are they allowed to ‘share’ food items or water bottles?
                Is there ever a ‘hot lunch’ served?
                Are all of the children drinking milk at snacks and meal times?
              What is the routine before and after eating?  Do the children wash hands?  If not, would the classroom teachers also add hand washing to their daily routine? 
                Is there an allergy safe table for eating?  If so, what allergies are avoided at that table?                                                         
                Are the tables washed off after meals, snacks, and art projects?
                What themes are taught?  Are animals in the classroom?  Who feeds them?  What do they eat?
                Do the children make crafts out of milk cartons, egg cartons, jars or cans, or use play dough?
              What is the teacher/student ratio?

In all six schools I was haphazardly reassured that my son would be safe.  A typical response was ‘oh we have a student with peanut allergies and have not had any problems’ after which they would move onto another topic. 

Then I decided to add a seventh school to my list.  I made the call expecting to hear the same old response however the admissions director caught me off guard.  She enthusiastically shared their classroom and school policy on food allergy management and reducing risk.  She answered my questions with confidence and told me a story to illustrate how their plan has protected others.  This school was a perfect fit.  The boys attended and loved this school. I loved the school and everyone in it.  Our son’s teachers were exceptionally careful and for that I will always be grateful.  He was able to start his academic life with a positive experience not a scary one.   If you or someone you know has an emerging preschooler with food allergies, celiac disease, or other food related disease I hope you will take my list of questions and use them in order to find a school that is a good fit.

Julie Trone, CEO
Allergy Free Table, LLC
www.allergyfreetable.com

Do you have other tips you would like to include? What is your experience like?

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