Elementary school = a new level of anxiety for a parent of a child with food allergies. If you have a child with food allergies, you know what I am talking about. For those that don’t, I’ll let you in on a little (not so secret) secret. It’s hard. Really hard. As children grow up, they developmentally want more and more autonomy. Elementary school is a natural time for kids to adjust to socializing with other children and adults outside the home. The problem is that those children/adults outside the home don’t know my child like I do. They don’t know the extent of her allergies. They may not know how to read food labels and find pesky allergens hidden all over the place. They don’t know how she would describe the beginning of an allergic reaction, like when she complains of an itchy throat or sees a red patch of skin, a life threatening reaction might be starting.
The beginning years of elementary are the hardest. In kindergarten, my child can barely read. She trusts adults just because she is used to trusting her parents. She hasn’t been able to fully comprehend the consequences of eating an allergen (something we’ve tried to protect her from). In Kenna’s life, so far she has attended 3 elementary schools, all of which were very different experiences for us. The school we currently attend has a “no food” policy. Treats are not allowed as incentive. Parents are not allowed to bring food items for birthdays. Any food in the classroom has to be pre-approved and a parent has to sign a permission slip before the kids are allowed to eat it. Honestly, I love it. Less worries, not only about an allergic reaction, but also with social anxiety. My child is no longer left out of “unexpected treats” that the teacher did not inform me about (so I could bring in a substitute).
Last year, like years prior, I prepared myself, my child, her teacher, and the school as much as I could about Kenna’s food allergies. I met with the teacher face to face. I created a 504 plan, Individualized Healthcare Plan, and filled out all the medical forms. I met with the school nurse. We discussed where the epi-pen and medications will be stored and how to use them. I brought into the class a bag full of acceptable substitute snacks/treats that my child could eat in case there were times my child could not eat what was presented in class. The teacher and I had an agreement that she would email me any time there was a class party, birthday, or reward/incentive of food in the class. I would bring in an allergen-free substitute, even if I only knew about it a few hours in advance.
Despite all my preparations and communications with the teacher/school, we had problems. This particular year, the teacher struggled with communication and very rarely let me know when food was in class. Even after more face-to-face meetings and emails, my child would come home fighting tears, explaining that the whole class got an “ice cream party” and she only got to eat the cone. Or the class had brownies and the teacher only gave her 3 skittles. You can imagine my frustration as a parent. Kenna started having anxiety, feeling left out of school activities, and struggling to connect with her teacher. She started complaining of stomachaches frequently. Kenna, who loves school and learning, did not want to go to school. She complained of bullies, but honestly I think she was feeling singled out and left out in class a lot. It was a learning experience for the both of us. I learned that no matter how much preparation and forms I filled out, my child’s relationship with her teacher is going to determine how well the allergy is handled.
Luckily for us, last year was the only extremely difficult year for us (so far). Like I mentioned earlier, we now attend a school with a “no food” policy and has a personal chef and I feel optimistic about the elementary school future. Kenna’s current teachers are amazing and very supportive and we hope that will continue. Kenna is currently in 4th grade and able to read labels, accurately know and describe the beginning phases of an allergic reaction, and she knows what it feels like to be left out. I am amazed at her strength and courage to move forward and to be empathetic to others with allergies. As she gets older, I hope she can let those difficult experiences shape her into a better person.