Choosing a School For Your Food Allergic Child – Step 1
One of the most common concerns shared by food allergy parents is what to do when their child starts school. And this concern is not limited to entering kindergarten for the first time; it is equally as worrying for moving to a new school, new grade, or even heading into college and university.
Most advice for food allergic parents entering school will center around very specific questions about staff training, food allergy plans, etc. and that is excellent advice but it’s really step 2 in the process. Step 1 is all about choosing a school with the right feel to it.
While that may sound very touchy-feely, bear with me for a moment because we’ve all felt it. You know what it feels like when you walk into a warm and caring home. Or you go into a business and no one meets your eye and you feel unwelcome.
Schools are no different from how you feel when you walk in a door. I was a teacher for several years before my own children began school and I could walk into any school and know if I wanted to be there, let alone have my children attend. So here’s what to look for:
- Is the exterior of the building/campus well taken care of? Look for clear signage and good maintenance, even if the school itself is old.
- What feeling to do you get when you step in the door? Evidence of kids, including artwork and murals, plus cleanliness and even natural light will give you warmth whereas dark, cluttered, and plain entryways don’t evoke that feeling.
- Visitors should always check into the office so how do you rate this experience? Are you greeted warmly or ignored? If there are students in the office, it’s a wonderful time to observe how they are treated.
- If you’re able to meet an administrator now, great. But if you can’t, is it easy to get an appointment within a reasonable time frame? Administrators are busy but their job includes meeting with prospective new students and families. The only caveat about a quick meeting time is during the summer due to vacations and don’t forget that the week before back to school is insanely busy for schools. Ideally, you’re doing your school shopping by April/May prior to the next school year starting.
- Get a school tour. You’re again looking for the “feel” of the school. But listen carefully too. Does your tour guide speak with pride about the school and its programs? And if there are students nearby, how do they interact with them?
- Watch how the staff interacts with each other. Are they respectful to each other? Is there laughter or a quick smile and eye contact as they pass by? If there are any volunteers in the school, are they also treating students and staff respectfully?
- If you have an opportunity to watch kids interact (in a classroom or schoolyard), this is great too. Watching them will give you an idea of what kind of behavior is accepted between their peers and from their teacher.
- Don’t forget the school bus if your child will be riding one. Observe the students getting on if you can. Is the driver greeting them with a smile, ignoring them or barking at them?
- Is your child boarding in a residence? Don’t forget a tour of this space as well.
- And finally, it seems like such a small thing but are you hearing the words please and thank you, including from the teachers to the students? Respect begins with such simple actions and clear role-modelling.
Many people would suggest that you should be choosing the school based on the teachers but don’t forget that your child will likely have a new teacher each year, or even partway through the year if circumstances change. The vast majority of teachers are in teaching because they truly care about making a difference for their students, but, like any profession, there are better and worse teachers. If your child gets a teacher on the worse/indifferent side but you’ve chosen the right school, you will get backup from administration which trumps how you feel about a particular teacher anytime.
You’ll still need to ensure that the school is able and willing to accommodate your child’s needs but completing this kind of school assessment is a good first step.
Alana Elliott is the Founder and President of Libre Naturals (formerly Nonuttin’ Foods), a gluten free and allergy friendly food company she founded in response to her family’s many food allergies and immune disorders.
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