The phrase “first day jitters” takes on a whole new meaning when going to school with a nut allergy. Especially if you’re the parent.
If this is your child’s first year in school with a nut allergy and you’re enrolling your child into kindergarten, Debra Bloom wrote a relatable article for Snack Safely titled A Mom’s Perspective: A Guide to Registering Your Child with Food Allergy for Kindergarten. Kindergarten is an especially emotional time, and Bloom walks you through a checklist of sorts. She shares a series of actionable steps you can take to create a welcoming environment at the new school.
Bloom also gives great advice on how to create your Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Emergency Care Plan. I want to emphasize the benefit of making the emergency care plan very easy to read and reference. Bullet points work great! Consider typing it if your handwriting isn’t straightforward and easy to read.
We recommend families of children with severe food allergies look into the process of creating a 504 plan. 504 plans are legally binding documents that protect your rights to request accommodations at school. You can learn more about 504 plans in my article Does My Child Need a Nut Allergy 504 Plan?, such as:
- What do they cover?
- What they are?
- Why are they important?
Read on to hear six things you can do to help prepare your child for the first day of school with a nut allergy, from the perspective of social concerns, self care, and emotional wellness.
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1. Prepare Them Ahead of Time for the Nut Free Zone or the Nut Free Table
It’s likely they’ll need to eat lunch by themselves on the first day of school with a nut allergy, unless your child shares a classroom with other nut-allergic children, or unless your child knows some of the children in their classroom from previous interactions ahead of time.
Eating alone in the nut free zone won’t last forever. Many families decide to include a friend into their 504 plan so that a friend can eat lunch with the nut allergic child at the nut free table if their friend’s lunch is also nut free. If your child becomes best friends with a particular child in the classroom, you can talk with that student’s parents and introduce that family to your favorite nut free snacks and foods, should their child decide they want to eat nut-free at school in order to sit next to their nut allergic friend during lunchtime.
It’s really difficult to have to think about your child eating lunch alone. It’s a difficult picture and it’s a difficult situation. Having a talk ahead of time to let them know it’s probable for the beginning of the school year, and especially on the first day of school, prevents disappointment and an otherwise surprising heartbreak when they are suddenly escorted away from their new friends come lunchtime. It won’t have to be permanent.
But being upfront about how the beginning few weeks of will look will prevent them from being set up for unrealistic expectations. If you let them know it’s probably going to happen, and that it’s nothing to be ashamed about, they won’t be surprised.
The thought of your child eating lunch alone at their nut free lunch table is torturous. But let them know that it’s likely for the first day of school to go differently than the rest of the school year. In some classrooms it will only be a matter of days until other students get adjusted to new nut free eating habits. In others classrooms, it could take weeks. But, this waiting period won’t last forever, (especially if you choose to create a 504 plan allowing friends to sit at the nut free table).
If certain students are used to eating nuts on a regular basis, or certain families are used to serving their children food that features nut ingredients, those families might need a little more time to adjust. It’s important they aren’t rushed through the adjustment process so that they educate themselves and take it seriously so they’re able to prepare nut free lunches that will be safe to bring to the table.
It’s also okay for a little lag to occur because it’s nice to allow your child to figure out who they like to spend their time with in order to make the friend-making process natural, smooth, and gradual. After your child tends to gravitate towards the same friends consistently, things will get easier and you’ll be able to have conversations with their friend’s parents to help with the transition.
To soften the torture of the waiting process, consider celebrating the beginning of the school year by creating really special lunches for the first few weeks. Maybe there’s something your child asks for that would be too expensive to buy on a consistent basis? Is there a particular toy they’ve been asking for? You can pack the lunches for the first few weeks with little notes or fun surprises to get them excited for lunchtime.
And you can turn this into an annual thing too! Maybe every year on the first day of school, your child gets an extra cookie or Rice Krispies treat, and then when they get home from school you take them shopping for a back to school toy or gift. This gives you a great opportunity to bond and check in to see what their first day of school was like.
If positive events and activities are added in, they’ll start to look forward to the first day of school like it’s a holiday. The allure of special presents will give you and the classroom some extra time at the beginning of the year so other students in the classroom can learn about nut free food options. Once your child knows who their friends are, they won’t have to sit alone again.
In an ideal world, your child will have a few friends going into their first day of school. If that’s the case, you can create a plan for them to sit with their friends on the first day of school. But unfortunately, some children might not know anyone when starting school, since they’ll be making new school friends on the first day.
2. Emphasize Never Sharing Food
There are so many reasons why your nut allergic child shouldn’t share food while at school. Once your child’s friends begin to learn more about food allergies and nut allergies specifically, they’ll want to protect their friend by choosing nut free snacks for their own lunches and keep learning what foods their friends can have or can’t have. But it’s important to understand that mistakes happen, especially with young children.
When your child is older and spending time with their friends outside of school, you can make the call on when it becomes appropriate to let your child eat at their friends house, etc. When you trust that their family fully understands the severity of cross contamination, etc, then that decision can be made at your own discretion.
But, when your child is at school, and especially when they are in their first few years of school, it’s a lot of information to take in. It’s best to make a rule to have your child follow: No Sharing Food. Period.
Sometimes children attending nut free schools have a false sense of security and are overly trusting about the snacks they’re offered—after all, the school follows a strict nut free policy if they’re calling themselves nut free. But, studies show that when measuring the anaphylaxis reports from nut free schools vs nut aware schools, nut aware schools were actually considered safer, and it was the nut aware schools that resulted in less anaphylaxis attacks.
More information on this study is analyzed in What’s the Difference Between a Nut Free School and a Nut Aware School?
3. Empower Your Child’s Word — Teach Them to Say No
When your child goes off to school for the first time, they’re taught to trust their teachers, principals, and other school faculty. They’re taught that adults know best. But, as a nut allergic student, there is a time to trust authority and a time to be the authority. When it comes to your child’s allergen, your child must always be the authority. No matter who they are conversing with.
Social pressure can take many forms. Sometimes, it may even come from well-meaning adults that are making their decisions from an ignorant understanding of food allergies. A blogger named Lacy Hooks wrote an article titled A Teacher’s Perspective on the Nut Free Classroom. I’m glad the article is bravely addressing a previously ignorant understanding of food allergies. But, at the same time, why do educated adults need to wait to witness a severe allergic reaction before understanding the precautions food allergic families fight for are put into place for a reason, and aren’t dramatic?
Before they stop rolling their eyes? There’s still a lot of stigma surrounding nut allergies from the general public. Even the small minimizations that adults make could put your child at risk. Your child must learn to stand up for themselves no matter who is telling them a snack is safe, etc. If something feels off to them, they must learn to trust themselves first and foremost. They’ll have to strengthen the boundaries held around their intuition.
Then, they have to get comfortable saying no. Have them practice saying “No, thank you”. You can rehearse variations of this response through different hypothetical situations, play pretend, or role playing. Go through what to say when someone offers your child nuts, or any food at all. Have them get really comfortable saying “No. No, thank you. No nuts please, etc”. Sometimes they’ll need to know how to communicate a proximity boundary.
If someone near them is eating nuts they’ll need to ask them to stop, or, they’ll need to move away. For this situation you can have them practice saying something similar to, “Sorry, I have a severe nut allergy and can’t be around nuts.” Then, they can walk away. Or, if they can’t leave the situation without leaving the classroom and someone doesn’t respect their boundary, teach them to go to the principal's office and phone home.
Saying "No" to Allergens
For kids learning to say no between the ages of 4-8, The BugaBees: Friends With Food Allergies is a great children’s book highlighting eight different food allergic characters that are learning to say no to their allergens. Read more about The BugaBees: Friends With Food Allergies, and other great children’s books in my article 10 Great Food Allergy Books for Kids.
Kids must also get comfortable saying no to their friends and classmates. Hopefully you can work something out with your school and create a food allergy education day. But, you and your child should still prepare for gaps in policy, etc. Even certain social situations could present problems if your child hasn’t fully accepted the severity of their allergy yet. Educating the class on food allergens can help the students take care of each other.
But, there might be certain situations where your child will want to try downplay their allergy to belong and take part in activities that the rest of the class is partaking in. They’ll have to learn to say no in these situations. When I was growing up, kids would trade snacks at lunch time. It was quite popular! If this is something going on in your child’s classroom, they’ll need to be comfortable communicating with their friends that they can’t share snacks or do any food trades. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about!
There are plenty of ways for kids to bond in school. Snack trades are just one and something nut allergic children will need to stay away from. Your kids must also get comfortable saying no in the face of peer-pressure. If their friends accidentally make a mistake, and they want them to join in on something that would be dangerous for them, they must be able to say “No. I can’t. I’m not able to because of my food allergy. Thanks for understanding.”
4. Be Aware of Food Allergy Bullying
According to a 2018 Allergic Living article Food Allergy Bullying: How to Spot It and Actions to Take, one-third of children and teens with food allergies are bullied. Bullying in this article is applied in a broad sense, and all the ways it could be interpreted are awful. Some instances were so serious there were reports of kids having their allergen put in proximity to them on purpose so their bullies could see what would happen. Or, the bullies would do something like slip nuts into the lunchbox of a food allergic child.
It’s so cruel and infuriating. If you’re five seconds from Googling “How to Homeschool,” I don’t blame you. What makes it worse is that only half of the parents of these students were aware that their child was being bullied.
There are a lot of good reasons why keeping your child enrolled in a traditional school setting would be to your benefit, like if you’re working full time. It also offers more access to social inclusion with kids their age. In a public school setting children may risk being exposed to bullying, but they will also be exposed to school dances, electives like art and music, after school groups, self-determination, built-in structure, and access to friends they wouldn’t have met otherwise.
If you keep your child enrolled in a traditional school setting, keep an open dialogue with your children about their experiences in school with a nut allergy and start early so it becomes a habit by the times they’re older. It’s something to be aware of. The more that you can get involved in school to promote food allergy awareness, the more teachers and other students can be part of your advocacy.
5. Encourage Hand Washing, Proper Hygiene, and Wiping when Necessary
One thing I learned from listening to Matthew Greenhawt's (MD, MSc) section of the webinar Flying with Food Allergies: Medical and Legal Concerns, hosted by Kids With Food Allergies, is that washing hands is more effective at removing peanut particles than using hand sanitizer. The webinar is quite lengthy, and there's a ton of useful content in it.
Kids With Food Allergies is a division of AAFA, which stands for Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Like FARE, they are a good resource to familiarize yourself with when looking for the latest news on food allergy research.
Encouraging your child to be diligent with hand washing before lunch and after recess will be extra important. While your child is still in their first few years of school with a nut allergy, if you can put it into their 504 plan that the entire class follows a routine of washing their hands at the beginning of the school day and then again after lunch and before playing on the playground, that would be ideal.
If a child is severely allergic, an allergic reaction can be triggered from cross-contamination. Kids might eat nuts at breakfast and then come into school and touch shared school supplies. Or, if students are eating nuts at lunch and then go to use the same playground, they could also share peanut particles accidentally.
Wipes are a good thing to keep in your child’s backpack in the case of cross contamination suspicion. They can have a teacher help if they require additional help.
FARE’s article titled Cleaning Methods, is a quick read on the cleaning methods that work best at removing peanut particles. The article confirms that hand sanitizer and water are not effective at removing peanut particles alone.
6. Set up an Emergency Care Plan with your Child
Make sure your child knows where their epinephrine auto-injector is, where their Benadryl is (including any other medications), where their emergency care plan is, and that they take pride in wearing their medical ID bracelet. All the essentials.
After creating an emergency care plan to share with your child’s teachers and school, go over what to do with your child too.
Make sure your child has access to epinephrine somehow. If you can put it into their 504 plan that they can keep an EpiPen in their backpack, etc., then take advantage of that. Or create a plan where your child’s teacher has a specific spot dedicated to storing epinephrine in the classroom. If an allergic reaction does occur, it’s important to be time sensitive in treating the allergen attack with medication as soon possible.
Making the Essentials Convenient
Consider buying a case where they can store their epipen, and then dividing up their backpack so that they can carry a copy of their emergency care plan in a specific location. My personal favorite auto-injector case is the Epi-Temp Case For Kids (Amazon). It keeps medication at the proper temperature and both cool and warm weather and recharges itself.
Summary for the First Day of School With a Nut Allergy
Don’t panic. It’s natural to be overwhelmed right now. We’re going over all of the worst care scenarios to prepare for potentialities. Talking about things in this way helps protect your children from scary situations occurring.
It’s a new chapter. And hopefully a fun one! Keep an open dialogue with your child so that as new things occur, you’ll be able to react and check in on how things are going. It’s a great idea to get involved at school through volunteer opportunities if you can. This way you can form a closer relationship with your child’s school, their teachers, and the parents of other students.
Wishing you and your family a great first day, and a wonderful start to the new school year!