How to Teach Tweens Food Allergy Self-Advocacy
Middle school is a big change for any student, a step up the academic ladder and a time of getting accustomed to having multiple teachers and classrooms. For families managing food allergies, however, it’s a time of even greater transition.
With the move to the new school, parents will want to begin to teach, incrementally, their middle school child to take on more responsibilities for allergy advocacy. The ultimate goal is to have good allergy management life skills upon graduation from high school.
To get this essential transition underway, it’s important to reach out to your child’s teachers and other school support staff to ask for their help in providing the safe environment for your child to practice his or her self-advocacy skills. Following are some ways to do this.
1. Talk to your child about a food allergy concern, then work with the teacher to resolve the issue. This would happen without your child present. Once the issue is resolved, you and the teacher can explain to your child what was decided. Leave some small decisions up your child. This allows your child to have some ownership without having the responsibility of advocating just yet.
For example, my daughter has multiple food allergies, including dairy. Before she began her cooking class, I met with her teacher and guidance counselor to discuss accommodations. After the meeting, we all met with my daughter to go over the accommodations. The teacher spoke with my daughter directly about the class. We allowed her to make decisions about what milk substitute to use and where her station would be within the classroom.
2. Initiate discussion with an adult, but bring your child into the conversation. An example of this approach would be when your child is visiting a new friend’s house. You may initiate the discussion with the friend’s parent about how and when to use the epinephrine auto-injector, but allow your child to demonstrate how to use the trainer.
3. Ask for some expert involvement. If your child seems ready to take on negotiating an accommodation with a teacher, but still needs some support, ask the guidance counselor or school psychologist to facilitate the meeting between the child and that teacher. Have the child meet with the counselor ahead of time to discuss the issue and how to frame the interaction. The guidance counselor may even suggest being a part of the meeting with the teacher and the child. For example, perhaps there is a science fair coming up and your child wants to know what accommodations will be in place to ensure his safety and participation.
4. Start with a simple opportunity to advocate independently. Choose a school staff member who you feel would be supportive. Let the person know ahead of time that you are trying to encourage your child to self-advocate and that your child will be speaking to him the following day about an allergy-related concern. For example, your child could ask the physical education teacher where the epinephrine auto-injector will be kept during swim class. The day before, help your child to come up with a way to ask this question of the teacher through role-playing.
Now that your child has some success under his belt and knows what adults are there to help him, it’s time to allow him to try advocating independently.
5. Allow your child to initiate the discussion on his/her own without letting the staff person know ahead of time and without additional staff support. Discuss the issue ahead of time with your child and role play some possible outcomes. Remind your child that he/she can bring you or another adult into the discussion at any time if needed.
A note about friends: Good friends can provide a great support system for your child especially when advocating. Sometimes just having a friend with her can be helpful when your child begins to self-advocate. For example, your child and her friends arrive to lunch and find their table has not been cleaned. She and her friends can gently remind the cafeteria staff that the table needs to be cleaned before they can sit down.
See the author’s full article: “Brand New to the School,” on successful middle school and high school transitions with food allergies in the Fall edition of Allergic Living magazine. The magazine is on Barnes and Noble newsstands as of Sept. 13, 2016.
Gina Mennett Lee, M.Ed., is a food allergy educator and consultant. Visit her website at Foodallergyconsulting.com.