The Early Bird Gets the Worm: Get Involved with Your Child’s School Before School Starts (Guest Post)

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Last fall, Duchess Cate (as she’s known on Twitter) and I were discussing Tristan starting pre-kindergarten and all the normal parental worries that go along with sending a food allergic child to school and out of our little nest of protection.  As a mother of a child with food allergies, she understood my fears all to well and had some great advice to share with me. I didn’t want to keep all the tips to myself, so I asked her to write this guest post about how to prepare well in advance, before the school year starts, for sending your child to school when dealing with food allergies.

Bio: Duchess Cate (@catestew) is an active food allergy advocate in the Midwest where she lives. She and her husband strive to ensure their seven-year-old daughter, who has multiple life-threatening food allergies, is safe and included. Find and follow her on Twitter to read updates about her family’s food allergy adventures … and the funny things her daughter says

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The Early Bird Gets the Worm: Get Involved with Your Child’s School Before School Starts

It is possible. It is possible to have a child with multiple, life-threatening food allergies and send him or her to public school confidently and safely. It is possible to partner effectively with the principal, nurse, teachers, and staff of a public school. We’ve done it. And in this post, I’ll share how you can do it, too.

Our Background
Our daughter, now age 7 and in the middle of her second year in public school, has multiple, life-threatening food allergies. Within days of her birth, she was covered with oozing, scaly eczema and had serious G.I. issues. I breastfed her, so her pediatrician had me remove a few foods from my diet, but we had no idea as to the extent of her food allergies.

When she turned a year old, she had her first food allergy testing via the Skin Prick Test. It took us the better part of a year to learn her full list of offending foods. It included dairy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, peas, chocolate, strawberries, and eggs.

So, that’s our background. Those were the special needs we were dealing with for our sweet baby girl. My husband is a stay-at-home father, so her early years were fairly manageable.

Kids Day Out and Private Preschool
Our daughter attended a Kids Day Out program (with her daddy either in her room or in one nearby). Then she attended partial-day preschool at our church. Those classes were small, with just 10-15 kids, and had two leaders with teaching degrees. We met with her preschool teachers each month to review what symptoms to watch for in a food allergy reaction and how to properly respond, depending on symptom severity and number of systems involved. All in all, it was an excellent experience with only one incident (which resolved with antihistamine) in two years.

Given our daughter’s medical condition, the general lack of understanding of that condition, and our very small, controlled experience in her schooling to date, kindergarten was a big step in food allergy management. So, we made a choice to get involved with her elementary school well before she even started kindergarten.

Preparing for Public School
In January of the year she was to start school the following fall, I contacted her elementary school. I asked about our local Parent Teach Association (PTA), when they met, and what the rules were about attending those meetings. We learned the PTA meetings were open to anyone, with or without membership, so my husband or I began attending the meetings each month.

We got to know the PTA board members, parents, some of the teachers, many staff members, and the principal. Each time the opportunity presented itself, we explained that our daughter would be coming to school in the fall, that she was excited for school, that she was very social, and that she had multiple life-threatening food allergies.

It was an ideal time to talk about her special needs. The staff, teachers, and administration members were not stressed with the responsibilities that go along with the start of school – and neither were we.  We were simply there to learn and to help, and were asking nothing in return. When the time came in April to talk with the principal and the nurse about keeping our daughter safe that fall, we already knew them and they welcomed a conversation with us.

Below you will find some tips to help you get involved, now, to help pave the way for your child to have a successful start with their public school experience this fall. It is possible. You can do it too.

Get Involved: Take Small Steps
Even if you have minimum “free” time available, there are simple and easy ways that you can begin investing in your local school. Most schools do simple collections that translate into fundraising dollars. These likely include soup can labels, box tops, soda can tabs, and possible others. At minimum, begin collecting those at home and taking them up to the school at least once a month – or better yet once per week so you become a familiar face. Take it a step further still, and find out the name of the volunteer (or volunteers) responsible for coordinating those programs. Someone has to tally the collection, add up the points, fill out paperwork, and send it all off to the sponsoring organizations. Offer to help that volunteer with his or her work.

Get Involved: Support One-Time Events
Even in small school districts, the school calendar tends to be published somewhere on the web. If you can’t find it on the web, call the school’s office and pick up a hard copy. Find out what’s happening at your local elementary school, and look for ways you can help. Maybe they’re having a book fair, holding a fundraising auction, or conducting a coat and mitten drive. As they say, many hands make light work. Contact the school secretary; he or she can put you in touch with the parent or teacher who is coordinating the various events happening at school. Your call to offer assistance with that event will be welcomed.

Get Involved: Offer Periodic, Ongoing Volunteering
There always seem to be opportunities to help within the school on a day-to-day basis. Help organize and shelve books in the school library. Be a lunchroom monitor. Choose a classroom and ask the teacher if he or she would like you to read to the children occasionally. Or, if you’d prefer not to read aloud, offer to listen to the children read. If books aren’t your thing, teachers and office staff can always use help with photocopying, preparing special crafts or projects, grading homework, and other administrative work.

Get Involved: Join the PTA
Become a member. There’s a small annual fee associated with membership, part of which goes to the national organization and part of which stays with your local school district. It’s an invaluable investment; you’ll learn everything that’s happening at your school and in your district, well in advance. Take a role in your PTA. Volunteer for an event, chair a committee, or even be a board member.

What have you done to help your child transition to school and to better help your child’s educators understand your child’s food allergies, eczema, or asthma?