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How To Protect Your Allergic Child At School or Day Care Centers

There’s a humorous scene in the most recent remake of War of the Worlds, in which the father (played by Tom Cruise) rebukes his daughter (played by Dakota Fanning) when she informs him that she’s allergic to peanuts. “Since when?” he snidely remarks as he’s making her a peanut butter sandwich. “Birth,” she replies, matter-of-factly. It’s funny to watch this scenario unfold with a clueless dad on TV, yet such exchanges are not unheard of, especially when a particular adult is relatively uninvolved in the child’s daily life. This tendency to forget about a child’s allergies or somehow be unaware of them in the first place is even more likely in a school or child care setting.

In an ideal world, a parent tells the school’s superiors, who then inform a child’s teachers, who instantly file this information away in their personal memory vault, where it stays to be recalled at all the right times. In the real world, however, people aren’t nearly so perfect. Even the best teachers are busy and under a great deal of stress. They have anywhere from 20-30 kids to keep track of. Twenty to thirty talking heads, each with their own needs and nuances, each giving them 20-30 various things to think about on any given day. Those 20 to 30 talking heads each have two parents gnawing at their ear as well, giving them up to 60 different viewpoints to keep track of. If you sometimes feel flustered caring for your own kids, try to muster some compassion for how flustered your child’s teachers might feel at times, and how they might suffer the occasional lapse in attention.

To complicate the situation further, there are other aspects of the classroom environment that make it possible for a breakdown to occur: substitute teachers coming in and out, parent helpers in the classroom or on field trips who might share their food with other kids, or in the case of child care centers, classroom aides who look after the children in the early morning or late hours of the day when their primary teacher isn’t there.

Accidental food allergy exposures are one of the most common school and child care accidents. Yet a study published in 2007 found that while two-thirds of surveyed schools had allergy-emergency plans in place, most of these policies were “missing essential components” – things as basic as having emergency contacts and student health histories on file. (Kalb, 2007) So if your child has a confirmed allergy, one in which an accidental exposure could cause a nasty rash or even lead to a life-threatening reaction, then you should take it upon yourself to help ensure school officials and teachers stay on their game.

Tips for ensuring your child’s safety at school:

1. Once is not enough. You should explain your child’s situation several times to a number of different staff members. So without being obnoxious about it, politely remind them of your child’s allergies at different times throughout the year. It helps to bring the subject up in an indirect way after the first couple of times, perhaps by telling them the story of the day you found out your child was allergic, or talking about the extra prep-work and precautions you have to take in your own home. Make it a habit to personally talk to any substitute teachers you encounter working in your child’s class.

2. Take the initiative to make an allergy poster for your child – something that can be posted in the classroom on the door to a supplies cupboard or some other prominent area where teachers should see it. Your poster should include a recent picture, your child’s allergies, contact information, and what to do in the case of an accidental exposure.

3. Any child who is old enough to communicate should be taught what their food allergies are and which foods contain them. Don’t rely on school staff alone. If your toddler has an older sibling, make sure they know what foods their little brother or sister can’t have, and ask them to remind the child care staff about them.

4. Don’t count on your child’s school to do the policing and protecting for you. Even in schools that have a “nut free” policy, these restrictions are far from foolproof. “You are putting your head in the sand if you believe your school is ever going to be peanut-free,” says pediatrician and allergy specialist Todd Mahr. (Szabo, 1-5-2012)

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