Starting school with a nut allergy: what we learned in the first year

Hands up: who had the jitters before their child started school? I did. Would he enjoy it? Would he make friends? Would the staff teach him well? Would he accidentally eat peanut? Would he have a severe allergic reaction? Would the staff spot it and administer the EpiPen in time?

As the parent of a child with a life threatening food allergy, you have all the regular starting school nerves, with a few extras thrown in. Whilst location and OFSTED ratings might be important, top of your wish list is a school that is allergy savvy. Reaction is the 4th R your child can well do without.

My son (D) started Reception class in September 2014. He had anaphylaxis (a life threatening allergic reaction) to peanut aged 20 months, which resulted in a week in hospital, with four days in intensive care. Since diagnosis, it feels like we have, slowly but surely, been getting more and more of a grip on his allergy: building confidence at playgroups, playdates and parties. Although he went to nursery, for me, school seemed a much more daunting prospect. He was leaving the safe bubble of his preschool room, where everyone’s food was prepared by the nursery cook, to run among 300 other children in the playground, many of whom have packed lunches, who could offer him a potentially lethal snack they had in their pocket.

Despite my initial worries, our first year went very smoothly. Here are the measures we put in place with our school, and the unexpected challenges which cropped up:

Doing your homework before school starts

Before we started, an allergy nurse impressed on me the importance of parents working with the school. So, at the end of the summer term before he started, we met with my son’s new teachers and the head of the kitchen team. This gave us the opportunity to fully explain his allergies and to learn about the safeguarding procedures the school would put in place.

On top of labelling uniform, my holiday homework included:

  • Obtaining an up-to-date allergic reaction action plan from the hospital.
  • Putting together two sets of emergency medication (for D, this included an EpiPen, inhaler and spacer and antihistamine). One set would be kept in D’s classroom, the other in the staff room.
  • Making a note of the various expiry dates, so I could provide replacements when needed.

I also followed a fellow nut mum’s advice of drumming into D two key rules: 1. only eat your own food and 2. tell a teacher if you ever feel unwell. We did this by “playing school”, with me pretending to be a friend offering round sweets and him saying “no thank you”. Despite this, I know that, at the point he started Reception, we were not 100% there. At one party, I had to pry a piece of cake out of his hand, whilst being told (indignantly) that it was fine for him, as it wasn’t from a friend, “Batman gave it to me”. At another, when he had to turn down chocolate, I was again mean mummy in his eyes, as he HAD checked with his (4-year-old) friend, who had promised it didn’t have nuts in. These incidents make me very grateful that our school has a nut free policy and lunchtime assistants who police the “no swaps” rule.

Nut free policy

Opinions differ on whether schools should be nut free. My view is that a nut ban is appropriate in a primary school where a pupil has a life threatening allergy. Yes, the real world isn’t nut free: but he wouldn’t be left to fend for himself in the real world aged 4. While it may not be practical to ban all allergens, if the school can safeguard at least some allergic children, that must be a good thing.

Word of warning: if your school has a nut free policy, make sure it’s publicised, for example in the school newsletter. As well as packed lunches, the nut free policy needs to cover things like coffee mornings and cake sales.

Allergy training and action plan

You need to know that ALL school staff know about your child’s allergy (and they would be able to recognise an allergic reaction, locate his medical kit, administer the EpiPen and call an ambulance).

For our school, the school nurse trains all staff annually on how to deal with an anaphylaxis emergency. When my son started, she ensured the procedures followed the latest version of his allergic reaction action plan.

School dinners

Before starting school, I assumed D would have packed lunches. However, he has been able to have school dinners. Our council has a “no nuts” policy and the school kitchen team double check the ingredients and for “may contain nuts” warnings. The school’s other safeguarding measures include:

  • All lunchtime staff know who D is (his photo is on the kitchen wall, with details of his allergies).
  • The lunchtime staff wipe down his table before he sits down to eat.
  • D goes first in the lunch queue, which reduces the cross contamination risk if one of the meals that day is something that “may contain nuts”.
  • A “no swaps” rule.

Safe treats box

Birthdays, Halloween, Christmas, Easter, end of term, someone’s been on holiday, someone’s mum has been baking… in the first term especially it seemed that every other day the children would emerge with treats. A “safe treats box” has worked really well for us: whenever there are class treats, a teacher gives D a nut free alternative from his box.

Chocolate coins in Christmas cards were a new one on me. D comes out of school with a card, opens it up and out pops a coin. Again, I’m mean mummy for taking it off him. He was even less impressed when Father Christmas himself was handing out chocolate “may contain nuts” coins at the Christmas Fair (“doesn’t he know I can’t eat nuts?”). Likewise, lots of children emerge from the classroom and grab a snack from their mums. This has all got easier as the year has gone on and I’ve been able to let the mums know about D’s nut allergy. Stress reducing tip: have some safe goodies in your own bag!

Unexpected dangers in the classroom

So, the school staff are allergy aware and EpiPen trained, there’s a nut free policy and the school dinners are nut safe. Where are the unexpected risk areas? These are the ones we’ve encountered so far:

  • Water fountains – D has his own labelled water bottle, which hopefully another child won’t use by mistake.
  • The home corner and junk modelling – school have made sure there are no packets from nutty foods.
  • Musical instruments – this hasn’t arisen yet, but we’ve discussed with school that, when it does, D would need his own recorder.
  • Cookery activities – each time D’s class do an activity involving food, his teacher runs through the ingredients with me beforehand.

School trips

Whenever D goes out of school (for example, to a church service or on a trip), his teachers carry a set of his meds. For added peace of mind, I have so far been able to volunteer as a parent helper on school trips (however, he might not be so keen for me to do this as he gets older). One of the bonuses of free school meals is that, for school trips, his classmates all have nut free packed lunches prepared by the school kitchen.

Out-of-school clubs

One aspect I’ve found challenging is out-of-school activities. D has been able to attend a holiday football course, which was run by a teacher. However, I tend to volunteer as a helper at events such as after school film shows or end of term parties, which are run by fellow parents. If his dad or I weren’t available to help out, this is one thing he’d have to miss out on.

End of year report

Preparing for starting school took extra leg work behind the scenes. To begin with, you have to think through all the risk areas and organise medical kits, action plans, safe treats boxes. Then, throughout the year, you are liaising with the school and going along (when you can) to after school activities and the various trips. However, I can vouch that there are confidence-inspiring schools out there. In some ways, our first year has been better than expected: I never thought D would have school lunches or that I would be able to drop him off at a holiday club.

In fact, the biggest challenges have been the social life that comes alongside school: playdates and parties. Suddenly your child’s social circle expands and you’re faced with taking a deep breath and saying “he’d love to come … and that date sounds fine … but I just need to let you know about his peanut allergy … and how are you with using an EpiPen?”. I’m hoping these occasions will become less stressful too, as he gets older and knows to say no thank you if someone offers him food. Even if that someone is Batman.

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