Before a school meeting on allergy accommodations, do your research — and plan how you’ll win them over.
Have you ever watched Food Network chefs and wondered why it seems so easy and fun when they’re preparing a complex dish? The reason is that you are only seeing the very last step of the process: the actual cooking. We don’t see all the planning, shopping, cleaning, measuring and chopping.
Similarly, when you are hoping to create a safe and inclusive environment for your child at school, the meeting with school administrators should be the culmination of all of your earlier prep work, research and planning. The meeting itself is when you will negotiate for the accommodations your child needs. Many parents begin calling and talking with the school prematurely, which can in turn sabotage their own efforts.
Reaching out to the school to schedule this meeting is the very last step you should take. So, let’s take a peek behind the scenes at how you can prepare.
1. No Surprise Parties
With preparation, most parents can advocate on their own. Should you choose to bring an attorney or advocate to the meeting, let the school know ahead of time. By the same token, you have the right to ask the school to provide you with a list of who will be taking part on that end.
2. Borrow Brilliance
There are always varying degrees of food allergy awareness among school personnel, so select a few handouts from reputable sources (e.g. FARE, AAAAI, CDC). Make copies for everyone at the meeting. As passionate as you may be, your own creations will not carry the same weight as those from national organizations.
3. Know What to Ask For
Review your state’s food allergy guidelines, if they exist, and the CDC’s Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in Schools. The accommodations outlined in the national guidelines will work well for most kids.
Some children have such a severe history of anaphylaxis, extreme sensitivity, or other factors (autism, ADHD, etc.) that additional modifications are warranted. If so, a letter from your child’s physician detailing those specific needs will be helpful.
4. Don’t Tip Your Hand
Before you meet, prepare a list of the accommodations you’d like, but don’t send it in advance. This is like emailing the jury your closing arguments before presenting your case!
During the meeting, help school administrators gain an understanding of your child’s unique needs and food allergies in general before asking for specific accommodations. Then you can discuss any objections as they arise.
For each accommodation you’d like, have a few “Plan Bs” in mind. For example, “No food for birthdays” may be your goal. However, birthday celebrations with safe treats in the cafeteria once per month might also work. Be open to considering suggestions from anyone at the meeting.
6. Use Common Language
Anaphylaxis, epinephrine, auto-injector. These are complex terms. When you’ve been in the food allergy arena for long time, it’s easy to forget that these words are not readily understood. Speak (or write) like you are talking to your grandmother. She would understand “severe allergic reaction” better than “anaphylaxis”.
7. Focus on the Near Future
You can drive from coast to coast across the entire country in the dark. You’d never see your entire path at once, but your lights will show you a bit of what is ahead and that’s enough to stay on the road. Consider what your child needs in the coming school year. Working on anything beyond that is over- whelming and impractical.
8. Mind Your Manners
Arrive early to the meeting. Say please and thank you. You don’t have to agree on everything. School administrators are used to challenging, even contentious meetings. However, if you show your willingness to work through these issues with patience and a sense of humor, you’ll be more likely to be on the receiving end of these same virtues.
9. Be Prepared to Lead
If you’ve asked for a meeting, be prepared to lead it. Have a few opening and closing remarks prepared. Tell them a bit about your child. A photograph helps to make the discussions more personal. Have your issues prioritized so that if you run out of time, you’ve tackled the most important ones. Do not attend the meeting alone. Bring your spouse, a friend or advocate, and ask that person to take notes.
10. Have Them at “Hello”
Like it or not, studies show that the way we dress impacts others, and even our own behavior. Business attire works well: suits, slacks, and skirts. I love my flowery peasant blouses and Life-is-Good T-shirts, but you’d never find me sporting these at a school meeting.
Finally, keep in mind that although you don’t have to follow every suggestion here, planning and preparation will always be the best recipe for success.
Gina Clowes is a certified master life coach specializing in the needs of parents of children with food allergies. She is the founder of the online support group Allergymoms.com, serving thousands worldwide. (Facebook Allergymoms)