Food Allergy at School: Avoiding Shame & Segregation
Any parent of a child with food allergies or asthma knows that going to school can be a source of significant anxiety. The child must attend classes like any other student, but with the added responsibilities of making sure to avoid triggers and being prepared for an allergy or asthma emergency.
But besides avoidance and emergency planning, students with allergies and/or asthma often face an additional, invisible challenge: exclusion. The ideal is for the allergic student to be included as a typical class member in all activities.
Unfortunately, the constant quest to protect and create a safe environment can result in unintentional segregation. Students with food allergies often sit at special tables or eat their own personal treat instead of enjoying safe items together as a class. In my view, this too often becomes a form of exclusion.
Slightly older students may begin to feel shame about their disease, and embarrassed or unworthy if the class chooses this exclusionary route for celebrations, activities or field trips. Therefore, they may simply grin and bear it to keep the peace and avoid unwanted attention. Too often, these students mask their true feelings in the spirit of class community harmony.
It can truly be heartbreaking to experience your child sitting on the sidelines as classmates enjoy popsicles or other possibly unsafe treats. Upset and angry at this exclusion, some parents choose the Mama and Papa Bear method – which means they roll up their sleeves, march into the school and demand action to protect their cub.
The challenge for parents is learning when it’s time to begin letting go and allowing the older child to self-advocate for inclusion. It’s essential to empower the child to travel upon their allergy and/or asthma life’s road when the time is right.
What to Watch Out For: Roadblocks
There are multiple school situations that can arise as “roadblocks” on the path to inclusion. These roadblocks create a plethora of feelings and emotions for students with allergies or asthma, which can detract from the learning environment and grow into a true academic distraction. Roadblocks happen when a student feels that he or she is:
- drawing unwanted attention
- upsetting the teacher or a parent
- denying fellow students parties or activities
- creating a situation for parental intervention
- a problem, and no one cares
- being viewed as needy or weak
- feeling shame about a disease that impacts others
It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of the statement, “Sorry class, we can’t host our traditional donut party due to allergies in the classroom,” the adept educator can reframe the reason in a way that’s inclusive. For example, “Instead of our traditional donut party, we will be celebrating with a dance party!” Speaking up and sharing ideas for inclusion at the beginning of the school year will help to avoid these types of negative situations.
Lastly, it’s important to know your rights. There are policies, laws, and 504 plans that require teachers and staff to keep students included. The Internet can be an excellent resource to learn more about these options.
As well as written protocols, the empowered student’s own voice is one of the strongest and most immediate communication resources available. Speaking up directly demonstrates the student’s desire to find resolution, and it ignites the conversation to removing roadblocks.
As adults and caring human beings, our young people look to us to better their quality of life, and to make learning easier and more comfortable at school with allergies and/or asthma. Sometimes, the best way to do this is to give them the confidence and tools they need to do it themselves. See the following page for some solution strategies for the empowered student.
Next page: Strategies that work for teens and preteens