Friday, August 30, 2013

Back to School for the Gluten Free Child

As a parent of a gluten free child, you've probably spent a ridiculous amount of time ensuring that your child is prepared, not only with new clothing and supplies, but with the knowledge necessary to remain safe in an environment that will be filled with food and products that contain gluten. Teaching your children how to cope with a variety of situations is important, but equally important is getting the school on board.

We've all heard horror stories of schools or teachers not taking the issue seriously, and I experienced that attitude at my son's former daycare, but most teachers take student welfare very seriously. However, they don't all understand what Celiac disease or non-Celiac gluten sensitivity really means, making it difficult for them to truly understand how to help your child.

I'm a teacher as well as a parent of a gluten free little boy starting kindergarten, so I see the issue from both perspectives. As a parent, my child is the most important thing in the world, and keeping him safe at school is my number one priority. I understand the gluten issue inside and out, and can spot a potential hazard from a mile away. As a teacher, I have a whole class (well, 3 classes as a high school teacher) full of students to worry about, each with something I'm supposed to remember, from allergies to other medical conditions to learning challenges. It's my job to be on top of each and every one of them, but that doesn't make it any easier.

This is where parents can help teachers keep their children safe. Your child's safety at school really is a partnership between the child, the parents, other students, and school staff.

Your Child: Regardless of whether your child is in kindergarten or is getting ready to graduate, they should have a basic knowledge of what they can and cannot eat. For a kindergarten child, that is as simple as teaching them to only eat food they bring from home, not to accept or even touch food offered from friends, and to wash their hands after eating.

1- Teach your child a phrase like: Is that gluten free? or I'm gluten free, to be repeated anytime someone offers them food. That simple statement can help jolt the memory of a teacher and avoid disaster.

2- Label everything. School bag, lunch box, containers within the lunch box, clothing, etc. with labels that clearly state GLUTEN FREE. Oliver's Labels is the company I use because they have those labels, but there are other companies that offer individualized ones. A quick glance at a label can remind a teacher in a heartbeat of your child's food restrictions.

3- Buy your child an allergy or a medic alert bracelet. It calls attention to food restrictions quickly, even for staff who don't come into contact with your child everyday.  There are some cute ones for little kids and more sophisticated ones for older children or teens.

Parents: It's the role of the parent to prepare both the child and the school. In addition to the tips above, I recommend approaching the school individually as well. The first day may not be the best time unless you've called and scheduled an appointment. Most schools are open the last week of summer, or will be willing to make an appointment if you call ahead.

1- Provide the school with a letter outlining what you need: I have a meeting with my son's teacher next week, and I will be bringing copies of the attached letter with me. I recommend a copy for the principal, one for the office binder or wherever they keep medical info, one for your child's file, one for the teacher, and one for the staff room. My letter will be a bit different from the one attached because my son's school has banned food in the classroom for any reason other than lunch. Birthday parties, Halloween, etc. are celebrated with non-food treats. I included info about food in the sample letter because I know that not all schools follow that protocol. CLICK HERE to access my sample letter.

2- Attach a doctor's note or whatever other medical documentation is needed. This varies from country to country, and sometimes even school board to school board. If supporting documentation is what they need to keep your child safe, then provide it.

3- Provide the school with everything your child needs to stay safe. Be proactive. My son is going to school next week with a supply of paint, paint brushes, glue, modelling clay, and GF pasta for arts and crafts. If food was an issue for celebrations, I would also be sending a bag of non-perishable treats. EVERYTHING will be labelled. Ask for a birthday calendar (without the names of the children) so that you can pack a special treat on those days. Many schools have pizza days. I will be sending my son with an individual GF pizza on those days.

Students: I realize that you cannot control other people's children. However, to another parent, your child falls into the general student category. Every kid has something. Trust me. It might be a food allergy, another medical condition, a learning disability, problems at home, you name it. When parents realize we're all in this together, we can empower our children to help look out for each other.

1- Don't send your child to school with banned food items. I realize other parents are sending their kids to school with gluten filled lunch boxes while you're probably being asked not to send nuts because somebody else's child is allergic. I understand the frustration, but it's not a competition. It would be nice if all food restrictions were respected in the same way, but putting another child at risk in protest is not the answer.

2- Teach your child food safety rules: Teach you child not to share food, and to wash hands after eating, for everyone's safety.

3- Bullying prevention starts at home: Use your own child's food restrictions as the starter for this conversation. No one likes to be picked on or made fun of, but sometimes kids get caught up in what their friends are doing and don't stop to think about the harm they're doing. Picking on someone for whatever reason is unacceptable. It's every parent's job to begin this lesson at home. Teach your child to respect other students and to treat others the way they would want to be treated. Give them strategies for coping with bullying, whether it's directed at your child, or at someone else. CLICK HERE for a great anti-bullying resource for parents.

School Staff: The school staff have a legal responsibility to keep your child safe to the best of their ability. The more staff members who know about your child's condition, the better That's why I recommend several copies of the letter to be made available.

1- Schedule a meeting with the principal and the classroom teacher. Bring copies of the letter, whatever medical documentation is necessary, plus a handout about Celiac disease. Attach a photo of your child to the letter so staff will recognize your child.  CLICK HERE to access the Health Canada statement on Celiac Disease. They don't have to understand EVERYTHING about it, what they need to understand is what your child cannot eat or touch. They also need to understand that it is a serious medical condition.

2- Become involved: I don't know who suggested to my son's school that food not be a part of classroom celebrations, but I bet it was the parent of an allergic child. By being part of a school council, or at least attending meetings, you can bring up a similar suggestion. Be positive. Focus on how it can result in less expensive celebrations for parents, less competition among students, and a more inclusive environment overall. My son's school suggests that the birthday child bring in a favourite book for the teacher to read to the class, or to hand out stickers or other small non-food items.

3- Make it easy: As I mentioned earlier, the easier you can make it for staff to identify and remember your child's food restrictions, the better. Labels, medical jewellery, supplies provided from home, etc. all help lower the chances of something going wrong.

Back to school should be an exciting time for children, even when it's stressful for parents. Your attitude will affect how your child feels, so be positive, build a partnership with the school, and don't forget to take photos on the first day!

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