Monday, September 12, 2016

Food Allergies and Celiac Disease in the Classroom

Food.  It's everywhere.  Think of a special event in your life and most likely food is a part of that memory.  Food nourishes us.  Food is social.  Food is EVERYWHERE!  Yet, imagine if your survival depended on avoiding certain foods.  This is exactly what so many of our children deal with on a daily basis at school.  This blog post is written for all our students who have food allergies or have been diagnosed with Celiac Disease and their teachers.  My hope is that this post will help educators understand their role in this food-based society.
Food Allergies Celiac Disease School

Food Allergies

The statistics can vary, but 1 in 13 children have food allergies.  The most common food allergens are:  peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish.  However, children can be allergic to any type of food.  Reactions vary from minor to life-threatening.  I can't remember a year when I didn't have a child in my classroom who did not have food allergies.  And it seems to be more prevalent today than when I first began teaching.

Celiac Disease

Celiac Disease is NOT a food allergy.  It is an autoimmune disease.  1 in 133 people in the US have Celiac Disease.  If you know someone who has Celiac Disease, they must avoid gluten (wheat, oats, and barley).  It damages their intestines and can cause a myriad of other health issues from stomach problems to developing other autoimmune diseases.  My daughter Tessa was diagnosed with Celiac Disease in 2002 at the age of 9 1/2.  I remember coming home from the doctor and typing "Celiac Disease" in the search menu of Google and feeling completely overwhelmed.  Avoid wheat? oats? barley?  It was everywhere and in everything.  Our daughter had already been diagnosed with Down Syndrome,  Type I Diabetes, a thyroid disorder, and now this.  Avoiding gluten back in 2002 was extremely hard.  It was before "gluten free" became a health fad.  Gluten was everywhere.  Fast forward to 2016 and there are so many gluten free options, which make our lives so much easier.

How Can Teachers Help?

Understand that food allergies and Celiac Disease are life-threatening issues that touch all of our lives.  We, as parents, are not over-reacting.  Our children must avoid these foods.  Please do not look at it as an inconvenience.  We need you to be on board with us.  We thank you for your understanding, care, and time that it takes to learn about us.

Educate yourself about food allergies.  There are so many wonderful websites that have pages dedicated to teachers dealing with these issues in the classroom.  Here are 2 of my favorites websites with direct links for educators.  They are quick reads.  Bookmark them.  Pin them.  Print them out.

Food Allergy Research and Education
Celiac Support Association

Communicate with your families.  We are problem solvers.  We must do it every day.  There isn't a day that goes by when I can "pretend" Tessa does not have Celiac Disease.  I can come up with a solution for most every situation that occurs in the classroom.  But I need your help.  I have to know the plans for what is happening at school.  Here are some things we (parents of children with food allergies or Celiac Disease) need to know about in advance.

  • Birthdays (Cupcakes, Cookies, and Snacks, OH MY!)
  • Parties (What food will be served?)
  • Field Trips (Will I need to pack a lunch? snack?)
  • Lessons Involving Food  (What are you preparing?  What is the educational benefit?)
  • Art Projects (Wheat is in finger paint, play dough, and starch along with other art supplies and food related projects.)
  • Sensory Table (Allergens lurk in many of your sensory items)
Playdough is a staple in the early childhood classroom.  Here is a link for gluten free play dough from the Celiac Family.  While you are there, check out all of the wonderful resources for teachers and families.

Substitute flour with cornmeal (some children may be allergic to corn) or rice. Avoid putting tree nuts in the sensory table during the fall, if you have a student allergic to tree nuts or peanuts.

Pasta is another favorite in the sensory table.  Here is a link to my blog post contribution to the Preschool Spot with a fun activity using gluten free pasta.

Stamps, stickers, and envelopes can have wheat on the back side (sticky part).  Do not let students lick stamps to put on envelopes in the pretend center.  

Be Prepared for having the student with food allergies or Celiac Disease in your classroom.  Each child should come with a health plan designating steps to take in case of an emergency. Here is an example of a health plan for children with food allergies from FARE.  This is an excellent website discussing 504 plans, IEP's and other supports from Kid's with Food Allergies.  Your school should have a plan in place for dealing with food allergies and Celiac Disease.  Things to consider are cross-contamination and exposure to these allergens or gluten from other sources.

Be Inclusive.  Choose alternatives for food-related activities if possible.  Do not use food as a reward. Plan an extra recess or special activity in class.  Games and centers are great alternatives to food.  When planning lessons, think of the objective.  Can it be accomplished without food?

WANT TO DO MORE?  I love this link from FARE.  They have a program called Be a PAL  which helps your other students understand food allergies and how they can help their friends.  Make sure you have the parents' permission to discuss the child's food allergies with others.

Thanks for joining the conversation.  You can check out our Face Book live with Vanessa Levin from PreK Pages on Monday, September 12, 2016 at 7:00 CDT.   Please leave a comment and share your tips or links to other online resources.

We appreciate YOU!