Teacher to Teacher: Let’s Talk Food Allergies in Your Class

in Food Allergy, Parenting & School
Allie Bahn with student Maya, at an end of school awards ceremony.

I’d like to speak to the teachers out there. I’m a teacher too, and I know the drill: our daily lives are a crazy blur of multitasking and over-stimulation. There’s the lesson planning, endless e-mail answering of parents’ questions, dealing with student crises, meetings for IEP and 504 Plans, and on it goes.

The teacher today is a partaker of myriad tasks and a wearer of many hats, which now includes “food allergy protector.”

With constant distractions, not only is it hard to remind ourselves to be present in the “now” with our kids, but to also make sure to keep their safety needs at the forefront of our minds.

Dr. Ruchi Gupta’s team at Northwestern University estimates that 5.6 million children in the United States (7.6 percent of kids) have food allergies. Another study estimates we’re now seeing about two students in every classroom with a food allergy. The greater prevalence makes it imperative to understand the impact of food allergies and the teacher’s role in protecting our students.

Routine, Routine, Routine

As a teacher (though not currently practicing), I came to understand the challenges my own teachers faced with my safety. In the early 1990s when I was in the younger grades, I was the only student in class with food allergies, since the fast rise of food allergies hadn’t yet surfaced.

How can we be aware and keep students safe? Following are a few strategies I’ve used as both a teacher and a grown-up former “allergy kid.”

I know students thrive on predictable routines. Children with food allergies need to know where they keep their epinephrine auto-injectors, safe snacks and any classroom procedures for allergy safety. Knowing what to expect is a tremendous comfort as a child, and minimizes anxiety around the allergies.

Educate for Understanding

Photo: Getty

At the beginning of the school year, I would let my fourth grade students know that I have serious food allergies. I didn’t want to worry them about my own safety, but I did let them know the importance of hand-washing. I asked them to wash their hands after eating my allergens. If I had a student with allergies, I explained the significance for both of us.

Every year my students showed understanding for my safety and the safety of their classmates with food allergies. I’ve found they take on this responsibility with sincerity and kindness. As a teacher, it is essential that you educate your class about how to keep fellow students with allergies safe and socially included. Teachers show by example, and are heard through action.

Yes, Even a Crumb

Children with severe food allergies can’t eat any of their allergens. Not even a crumb. It is that serious. If you, the teacher, eat an allergen, be sure to wash your hands well. Allergenic proteins, such as peanut, tree nut or cheese (dairy), can stick to surfaces, and lead to ingestion and a reaction.

Sharing food is not safe for anyone with food allergies. So set the precedent from the start of the school year that no one shares food. This will do a lot to support your students with allergies.

A student with food allergies will have an emergency care plan and possibly an individual health or 504 Plan for allergy management. The latter often includes not bringing specific allergens into the classroom.

For teachers, we have to be careful in any of our lessons involving foods or craft materials not to inadvertently introduce a forbidden allergen. When planning such a lesson, check the ingredients, and share the package ingredient label with the allergic child’s parents – ahead of the class. Also, we can strive for creative, food-free teaching and birthday honors. I find it easiest to establish this right from the beginning of the year.

Don’t Leave Us Out!

Kids with allergies often struggle with feeling like a burden. It is important not to assign blame or make them feel like a bother for you.

Trust me, if there was anything that we “allergic reactors” could do to stop having our allergies, we would! Everybody has their own unique needs, and we should encourage the idea that allergies are simply one of those.

For teachers, the job is a never-ending combination of planning, organizing, listening, educating, engaging and collaborating. You may never have realized that “food allergy protector” would be added to your job description. But along with numerous other hidden talents that collect behind the “teacher” title, this newer one is just as significant.

Allie Bahn is a teacher and allergy advocate, who lives with multiple allergies and asthma. She is the founder of the travel and dining website MissAllergicReactor.com.

Read more from Allie Bahn:
Letter To An Allergic Teenager – From One Who’s Been There
Vacationing in Belize – With Multiple Food Allergies