Teachers in an elementary classroom must wear many hats. Not only are they instructors, but these patient men and women are lesson plan writers, bulletin board creators, first aid specialists, and keepers of piles of papers that need grading. Unfortunately, a relatively recent surge in childhood food allergies sometimes forces teachers to add another responsibility to the list: keeping a student safe from serious allergic reactions.
Are you prepared to deal with food allergies in your classroom?
The first step is identifying the student and his or her allergy. Usually your school will ask for this information during the enrollment process and it’s likely a school nurse will then help oversee any special arrangements (like a separate lunch table) a child may require.
Some of the most common childhood allergies are to peanuts, other nuts, and wheat. This covers kids who are allergic to these foods and also kids who may have Celiac disease. If you have a student with one or more of these health issues, your job as the classroom teacher is to help make sure that student does not come into contact with food that can cause a reaction. Here are some considerations to keep in mind:
- Candy often goes hand-in-hand with Halloween, Christmas and Valentine’s Day crafts. You need to learn how to read the labels. For example, if you are collecting bags of candy to be used in a Gingerbread House craft, read the ingredients AND check below the list for words like “may contain wheat,” “made in a facility with nuts.” Don’t allow any foods to be used in your classroom that contain the allergic ingredients or if the food may have come into contact with those ingredients.
- Keep an eye out on field trips. Send an email to chaperones and ask them not to hand out any treats. Sometimes well-meaning adults will distribute fun food items like mints or other candy and this is a big no-no when supervising a student with allergies.
- Planning to sort Lucky Charms for a fun math activity? Again, check the label and don’t take any chances. If you’re not sure about a food item, don’t assume it’s ok to use it as long as the allergic student doesn’t eat it. Some kids are so allergic that even just touching a food could cause a reaction.
Supervising students that have food allergies can be especially nerve-wracking to teachers because sometimes these kids must carry Epi-Pen shots that help them survive a life-threatening allergic reaction. If you have a student with this type of allergy, make sure you discuss the issue with your school nurse. Policies vary widely, but usually the school nurse will have Epi-Pens in the clinic and will have a plan in place to administer them. Often additional staff members (other than teachers) are also trained to treat life-threatening allergic reactions.
The best advice to successfully handle your students’ allergy issues is this: Always check food labels and be familiar with your school’s treatment policies.