Allergy anxieties climb when it’s school time
The first day of school is always an anxious time for children and their parents. For the parents of the 1 in 10 Australian children with severe food allergies, the transition to school can be a source of even greater concern.
Dr Prathyusha Sanagavarapu, a lecturer from the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, says starting school can be a complex and highly emotionally charged event for families affected by food allergy.
"In the years that the child is at home, parents are able to maintain complete control over their food intake and minimise all risks," says Dr Sanagavarapu.
"When the child reaches school age and is taken away from their watchful eye for more than six hours each day, the potential consequences for parents are terrifying."
Dr Sanagavarapu says parents are right to be concerned, given the severe consequences of food allergy.
"Parents have very real concerns that their children will be unwittingly exposed to allergy causing foods, either in the classroom or the playground, or might be tempted to taste unsafe foods due to peer pressure from other children," says Dr Sanagavarapu.
"There is also a concern that they will be perceived as paranoid, overprotective parents and that their child's allergies will be overlooked or not taken seriously – the results of which would be potentially life threatening."
For parents who are sending their children to school for the first time this year, Dr Sanagavarapu has some tips to ensure that the experience is as safe and anxiety-free as possible:
1. Before starting school, meet with the school principal, classroom teacher and any other staff in charge of first-aid management to discuss their child's medical and health needs, and develop a written plan for risk prevention and management.
2. Enquire about the school's requirements for teacher knowledge and training in dealing with food allergy, and any arrangements that will be put in place to effectively manage risks for your child.
3. Check how children are supervised during lunch/tea breaks and clearly label your child's lunch boxes and drink bottles. Teach your child to not share food with other children or accept food from others.
4. Research your State's guidelines or policies for the in-school management of food allergy and anaphylaxis. Provide the school with copies of the Action Plan for Anaphylaxis developed by your child's doctor and directions for following the specified treatment plan.
5. Provide the school with a medical kit containing any medication and equipment that is required to treat your child. Your child's name, allergic triggers, list of contents and a recent photo can be placed on the lid and container.
6. Suggest that staff receive specialised face-to-face training through the approved training providers. (Online training is also available for educators in Australia and New Zealand at no cost.) Check Anaphylaxis Australia's website for more details.
7. Suggest that the school raises allergy awareness within its community.
Dr Sanagavarapu says, as more and more children are starting school with food allergy, educators need to understand food allergy and be able to manage it effectively in a school or prior-to-school setting.
"Parents can only feel confident to leave their children at school if they know that educators are knowledgeable about food allergy and they can handle food related emergencies," she says.
"If parents have this confidence, the transition to school will be a much more pleasant experience for everyone."
Dr Sanagavarapu is conducting a research project in 2012, funded by Anaphylaxis Australia, which aims to further investigate the issues surrounding starting school with severe food allergies and the associated socio-emotional implications for children and their parents.
The research will be conducted in collaboration with UWS, Anaphylaxis Australia Inc, Sydney's Children's Hospital Randwick, and Campbelltown Hospital.
18 January 2012
- Children can have serious allergic reactions to commonly available foods such as cow's milk, peanuts, sesame, eggs and tree nuts, even when they are consumed in very small amounts.
- Many parents go to great lengths to ensure that the meals they serve their children do not come into contact with other foods. This includes bringing home-cooked or special meals to social events such as children's parties.
- There are great social impacts for children and families with severe allergies. Families can be restricted in their social interactions – they have less family outings, refrain from eating out or travelling, and avoid some recreational activities.
- Allergies can have a definite impact on the child's ability to be socialised, and their self esteem. Many feel left out and singled out, because they cannot eat the same foods as their peers. Eating disorders and anxiety issues can often result, as children become fearful of eating.
- For some parents, school is considered such a risky environment for their child, home-schooling is considered the only way of ensuring that their allergies are properly managed.
- Parents do their best to prepare their children for the school environment and equip them with the knowledge and training so that, when they are exposed to affected foods or confronted with peer pressure, they will have the capacity to act responsibly.
- Despite their efforts to prepare their child with the knowledge of food that they can and cannot eat, parents fear that once at school their child will not have the capacity to resist affected foods if they are exposed to peer pressure.