Helping parents and children with allergies in the school environment.
Starting school for the first time can be a stressful and daunting affair, even for the hardiest of children. It is a time for children to leave the security of their parents’ watchful eye who are there to nurture and protect, and to venture out into the world independently. This is especially true for children who suffer from potentially dangerous allergies. In the home environment, parents are able to control their child’s exposure to allergens and recognise symptoms of a reaction, thus taking necessary action. Unfortunately, this is not always the case in the school environment if staff and fellow learners are unaware of the dangers of a severe allergic reaction and the measures that should be taken should one occur.
Allergies such as asthma, allergic rhinitis, insect allergies, anaphylaxis, atopic dermatitis and food allergies are becoming more prevalent in South African children. With an ever-increasing number of children who are diagnosed with food allergies, about 1 in 40, it is of the utmost importance to ensure that parents and school personnel work together to ensure that children with these allergies receive the acknowledgement and care required to keep them safe when in the classroom, on the playground and on the sports fields. In severe cases, a child exposed to a dangerous food allergen may experience life threatening anaphylaxis. Sitting next to a child who is eating the potential allergen may be enough to trigger an allergic reaction.
A lot can be done to ensure that allergic children are kept safe at school. Keeping the channels of communication open between parents, allergists and school staff members is vital. Simplicity is also key in ensuring that precautions are taken and that the necessary information is well understood by everyone concerned. Here are some handy tips for parents to use to ensure that their allergic child can go to school safely and confidently.
- At the start of every school year, meet with the principal, teachers and kitchen staff. These people will all play an important part in your child’s life at school and it is important to keep them up to date with information about your child’s allergy. Food allergies are particularly prevalent and schools should already have policies in place to ensure the safety of their allergy pupils. Inform the school staff of your child’s specific needs.
- Talk to your child’s school about establishing an ‘Allergy Action Committee’. Staff members who are on this committee should be trained in the care of children with allergies and be able to respond effectively in the event of an episode. Training must be conducted through a professional body, such as the Allergy Foundation of South Africa.
- Encourage the school to embark on educating fellow learners at your child’s school. Once children understand the seriousness of allergies, and what they can do to support these children, the less likely they are to bully. Invite your allergist or a nurse who specialises in allergies, to give a talk to the children.
- Working with your allergist, create a written action plan outlining all of the necessary information about your child’s allergy – keeping it simple and in layman’s terms. Include information about how to prevent accidental exposure and how to recognise and treat the symptoms of an allergic reaction. Include your contact information and that of the ambulance services. It may be an idea to print and laminate copies of this so that everyone who comes into contact with your child has a copy.
- The school could create a small poster of all of the allergy children in the class with their photos and allergy information included on it. This will serve as a reminder for anyone entering the classroom that there are children with allergies and care must be taken at snack time. This is especially relevant if substitute teachers, students or visitors are in the classroom, and may not be aware of the child’s allergies.
- Teachers should be encouraged to avoid using common allergens in school projects or activities.
- Children should be encouraged to wash hands before and after eating to ensure that the potential allergen is removed from the environment.
- Ensure that your child has allergen-free snacks in case someone brings a treat in for the class. Leave some with your child’s teacher with a label specifying that the snack is safe for your child. In this way, your child will not feel left out of celebrations and will not feel excluded or different from anyone else. They should most certainly be part of the fun!
- Lastly, the school should have a labelled medical kit, including the child’s action plan, that may include an adrenaline autoinjector, Epipen®, and antihistamines. There should be a policy in place that would ensure this medication is always accessible should the need for its use arise. This could be in the classroom, with the secretary or both.