The start of kindergarten is bittersweet for most parents. On one hand, we’re excited for the new experiences that await our youngsters as they begin their school careers; at the same time, we mourn the passing of the baby years. How quickly they grow up.
While our first-born child, Julian, is now in university, I clearly remember the day he started junior kindergarten. He was so proud to be going to “the big school”, carrying his new backpack and wearing the outfit that his grandmother had given him to mark this special occasion.
Me, I was ready to cry. Not just because JK represented a new milestone – my 4-year-old was growing up – but out of fear that he might have an allergic reaction at school.
Julian had been diagnosed with peanut allergy only six months earlier. My husband Victor and I were still getting used to the routine of reading food labels, preparing safe meals, and remembering to carry an epinephrine auto-injector everywhere.
Now, as our son moved out of our protective bubble and the watchful eyes of his babysitter, we had to advocate with more people to ensure that he would be protected at school where he would soon spend the better part of the day.
Our journey into the brave new school world began with registration. Victor and I met with the principal and the teacher to review some basic measures that would help to keep Julian safe.
Though we were reassured that the staff would do its best to safeguard our son, I continued to feel anxious every morning as I handed him over to his teacher, breathing a sigh of relief at noon when I was greeted by his smiling face at pick-up time. My son, meanwhile, loved his teacher and enjoyed his new friends and activities.
That first year was very difficult. Every time the phone rang I was afraid it was the school calling to say Julian had had a reaction.
Already stressed with the burden of trying to anticipate where food might pose a risk, my anxiety escalated when the mother of a peanut-allergic child said, in a judgmental tone: “I can’t believe you didn’t know peanut butter is often used as bait in mouse traps! Haven’t you asked the school to remove them?” What an irresponsible mother I was. How could I not know this?
As I added mouse traps to the growing list of what I thought to be high-risk situations, my own reality check began to set in. I started to question whether I was losing sleep over the wrong things. For instance, just how likely would it be for my 4-year-old to touch a mouse trap containing peanut butter and have a serious allergic reaction?
I reminded myself of what my son’s allergist had said: While anaphylaxis has the potential to cause death, fatalities are rare. What seemed more productive than stewing over “what-ifs” was minimizing the risks at school.
While casual exposure to peanut could be an issue, I realized that Julian’s chances of staying safe would increase if I focused more on two things. The first was conditioning him to follow key rules (no sharing food with others, always carry your auto-injector), and the second was getting the school to formalize its anaphylaxis plan, ensuring that staff were trained and that the school community was aware of the food policies.
I felt the school community would be willing to help as long as I asked for accommodations that were reasonable. To do this, I needed to calm down.
Victor and friends whose kids did not have food allergies acted as my sounding board on the school communications I drafted for the principal. With their feedback, I learned to write succinctly, and in a way that expressed the seriousness of anaphylaxis without scaring or turning people off with too much information.
My “reviewers” quickly pointed out where I needed to reconsider my expectations, reminding me that people would make mistakes; they would overlook things like “may contain” warnings on food labels as they weren’t accustomed to reading labels the way I did.
After Julian was not invited for a couple of play dates, and was un-invited to a birthday party, I learned the hard way that my explanation to other parents that “even trace amounts of peanut could be harmful” may have led to misunderstandings.
I had not put risks and precautions (such as having an auto-injector available) into context for them; I’d simply alarmed them. Some parents felt they could not keep Julian safe in their homes.
I realized how important it was to watch that my concerns would not scare people or douse Julian’s enthusiasm for the school experience. As he learned to take on more responsibility, and as the anaphylaxis policy became more entrenched, my anxiety lessened. Thanks to the support of the school community, Julian sailed through his elementary years and I came through with my sanity intact.
Tips for Working With the School
Put yourself in the shoes of others. While our allergic children have a right to a safe environment, avoid having an overblown sense of entitlement. Parents often make the mistake of demanding accommodations that are unrealistic or impractical for the school community.
School policy development is a process of negotiation, so try to bear in mind the other side: principals and teachers are faced with cutbacks in funding, a greater number of children with special needs, and more demands from the wider school community.
Managing anaphylaxis is important and they want to do the right thing, but this is one of many challenges. Most educators entered the profession because they like and care about children. They are there to help. Be respectful of that, and you’ll get better results.
Provide “need-to-have” information; avoid the temptation to “tell all”. While minute details of your child’s worst reaction may have the effect of getting others to take anaphylaxis seriously, they can also lead to a debilitating level of fear.
Other adults (babysitters, parents of your child’s friends, teachers) may not want to take care of your child as they worry that they cannot possibly protect him or her.
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. If your child’s school needs an anphylaxis plan, don’t start toiling away. There are now great sample school plans and forms at www.allergysafecommunities.ca, the companion website for the national guidelines, Anaphylaxis in Schools and Other Settings and Food Allergy Canada’s website,www.foodallergycanada.ca..
Say “thank you”. These two simple words can go a long way to getting others on board. The majority of teachers and other families don’t live with severe allergies. But out of respect for our children, they comply with school food policies almost 200 days of the year.
As awareness increases, these people often support our kids at camps, community centres, and on sports teams. We owe them our thanks.
Laurie Harada is the former executive director of Food Allergy Canada, www.foodallergycanada.ca.
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