Preschool is simultaneously exciting and nerve wracking. It’s a brand new social and learning experience that serves as your child’s educational foundation. For many parents, the start of preschool can be an emotional time as you begin to slowly let go of your child and encourage them to grow, but for a food allergy parent, letting go has an added layer of complexity.
Food allergies can be very daunting, especially when you have no daily control over your child’s environment. Preschool structure in terms of classroom management, set-up and protocol often require more specific parameters. Preparation and planning are paramount for food allergy parents. And though the parenting burden is great, it is well worth it — especially when that first art project comes home and is proudly displayed on the refrigerator. Follow these three steps to help make the preschool and food allergy process easier for you and your little one.
Step 1: Ask the Right Questions
Whether your child is already enrolled in a preschool, or you are still in the process of finding one, it’s important to make sure it is the right fit for your child’s needs. Here are some targeted questions to ask the school in order to get the dialogue rolling.
• What have you done in the past for kids with food allergies?
• Do you have any specific guidelines?
• How is a child identified as a food allergy child?
• Is there a food sharing policy?
• Are there any food activities in class?
• Are there out-of-school field trips? How is food handled?
• Who will be responsible for my child every day?
• Who has access to Epi Pens?
• What type of training does the staff have? Who does the training? Content?
• What types of snacks are provided?
• Are the classrooms nut-free?
• Who else uses the classrooms? (Many preschools operate out of churches or synagogues, and the classrooms are used for other purposes. How are they maintained/cleaned before the next morning)?
• Are you open to a food allergy plan?
• What is the staff return rate? (Look for senior staff who will be educated on a regular basis and will develop a relationship with you and your child.
Step 2: Create Your Own Management Plan
Creating a food allergy management and prevention plan is integral to your child’s safety and your peace of mind. There are varying levels of knowledge amongst preschools in terms of food allergies, so developing your own management plan is imperative. Schedule a meeting with the preschool director prior to the school year to review the plan along with any documentation from your health provider regarding diagnosis, your child’s allergens and reaction history. This provides an opportunity for an open dialogue in which to problem solve. Your goal is to aim for an honest and healthy relationship with the preschool staff. If they aren’t receptive to a plan and/or dialogue, or it appears to be a contentious experience, you may want to consider a different school.
Below are suggestions of what to include in a food management plan. Every child has different needs, and while there isn’t a one-size-fits-all allergy plan, many of the points below are universal. But every plan should include both a section on classroom management for food allergies and a detailed emergency plan.
Classroom Management for Food Allergies
• Strategies to prevent exposure to allergens (hand washing, wipes, covering tables with paper for lunchtime, stowing lunchboxes in personal cubbies or backpacks as opposed to a big basket for all lunches where your child’s lunchbox could be contaminated).
• Reducing exposure to allergens (non-food prizes, appropriate snacks, hand washing, no food projects, washing down tables and chairs).
• Make sure wipes are available.
• If possible, make it a nut-free zone.
• How to include your child in all aspects of the program — paying close attention to the psychological factors that accompany food allergies.