Monday, February 24

Tips for Preparing for Preschool: One Mom's Food Allergy Journey

This is a guest Q&A post written by a woman who knows her stuff. Jenine Lawton is mom of two children with food allergies and parent group leader extraordinaire. She’s one of the most informed people about food allergies I've ever met.

She leads a local groups of parents of children with food allergies (I am actually lucky enough to have two awesome groups of parents in this area). We meet every so often to listen to speakers, get informed, share information and even get free samples (from SunButterto Surf name it!).

Jenine was also asked last year to become a part of FARE’s new Executive Council for Support Group leaders to help with ideas for new initiatives. She has been assisting as part of the Support Group and Grant committee.

Jenine and her daughter had a wonderful preschool experience last year. She has all sorts of great information to share with other parents (like me) who are preparing to enroll their child in preschool or daycare. So, I asked her to write a guest post to share some of her wisdom and experience with others who don’t live in our area. 

This post has a TON of great information in it. I hope you'll find this useful!

GUEST POST Q&A with Jenine Lawton
The Lawton family in high spirits after a fun school concert.
Q:Please tell us about your food allergy story
A: I have 2 children. Owen is turning 11 this month. He was first diagnosed with a milk allergy after having a severe reaction to just a taste of ice cream at 6 months of age. At 9 months, testing showed that he was also allergic to egg and peanut. That was the point that he was first prescribed epinephrine and our world changed. Our food allergy journey truly began then.  Unfortunately, he has not outgrown any yet. 

My daughter, Shea, is in kindergarten this year. She was first diagnosed at 3 months of age (due to eczema) and is allergic to milk, egg, wheat and barley.

When my son was first diagnosed, I was lost and had no idea where to go. I was very lucky to stumble upon KFA ( at the time. It helped me not to feel so alone. I joined a local support group in the Chicago area, MOCHA. They were wonderful and supportive. It was so nice to meet others face to face and know that I was not alone. When I moved outside of Philadelphia almost 9 years ago, I was surprised to find there were no groups. I then heard about a group forming, and I joined. The leader of the group wasn't able to continue so asked if I could step up. I have watched our group grow (to at least 80 members in our Facebook group!).

Q: What made you feel confident and comfortable enough to enroll your daughter in pre-school, even with her food allergies?
A: I can’t say that I ever felt 100% confident or comfortable with enrolling her in pre-school.  Anytime my children aren’t with me, my concern is elevated.  After looking into schools, touring schools, and talking to friends, I enrolled her in pre-school. I believed her specific school truly would do all that they possibly could to include my daughter in activities. They would also do their best to ensure her safety while at school, and they knew what to do and had procedures in place in case of any type of reaction. On top of that, I felt that they truly care for and love their students.

Q: How did you begin your search for a pre-school that was food allergy friendly/aware?
A: I began my search years ago when my son, who also has food allergies, was going to preschool. The school that he went to did their best to keep him safe. He did not have any reactions while in preschool there. They did take extra precautions. When I spoke to them a few years later about my daughter, I was told that they would “never do all that again”. So I was back to the drawing board looking for schools. I started by learning more by word of mouth and recommendations.

Q: What did you look for in a food-allergy friendly/aware pre-school?  
A: The school that Shea went to struck me as different from the moment I walked in. Hallways and classrooms were VERY clean. Almost all classrooms had bathrooms and sinks – which was great for hand washing before AND after snacks as well as prepping snacks. They had a policy to spray the tables with commercial cleaner and paper towels before AND after snacks.

They presented me with ALL that they had done in the past for those with food allergies – what they felt worked and didn’t work. They already had a policy in place regarding food allergies. They tailored the policy based on the needs of the child. They were also VERY willing to learn more.

The teachers were very positive. Smiling, friendly, and knowledgeable. They already were aware of the differences between a food allergy and intolerance. They already were aware of when and how to use epinephrine. YET, they were still grateful to have me come in prior to the school year to do a staff/teacher training.  

Q: From a food allergy perspective, what are some “red flags” parents should look out for when searching for pre-schools?
A: I have found that looking at the overall cleanliness of the facility speaks volumes. Also, how they respond to your questions – are you brushed off or told not to worry?   Do they ask questions? They should ask many questions.

Can they give specific examples of how they have handled food allergies in the past?  
Have they had students in the past with food allergies. If they say not many, it may be because they aren't willing to work with the families. Or it might mean others have not been comfortable sending their children there.

Q: What questions did you ask before you enrolled your daughter?
A: I asked probably close to 100 – not kidding. Most parents are asking about curriculum, computers, reading readiness, but I may have asked no more than 2 questions about anything educational.

Here are a few of my main questions:
  • Do you have a food allergy policy?  How is it enforced?  What happens if someone brings in an item that isn’t safe – ex nutter butters
  • Do you have snack?  Is it supplied by the school?   Do parents bring it in?  Do they have a list of snacks to choose from?   Can I stand at the door to check ingredients each class if parents bring it in?  Who will recheck ingredients if I can’t be there one day?  
  • Are the teachers trained to recognize anaphylaxis?  Do they know how to administer epinephrine?  Are they willing to learn?  May I provide training to the staff?   Can I meet with the teacher AND aide prior to the start of school?
  • In case of an emergency (severe reaction) what is the school’s procedure?  Is there a nurse or someone in the building with a medical background?
  • How do you let the parents in the class know about my child’s allergies?   What allergies have you dealt with in the past?
  • Is there a 2 way communication from the classroom to the office? 
  • How are celebrations and birthdays handled?  How can my child be included?  
  • WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP YOU?   (One of the most important questions)
Q: What preparation did you do before your daughter’s first day?
A:   I started looking at/talking to schools in November/December of the year before I was going to send her. I met with the director and one of the teachers that January prior to registration to discuss all the questions/concerns. I stopped by the school on a day when there wasn't an open house to see how things go on a “typical” day.  

In August, I went in to do a staff training during their in-service.  I met with the teacher, her aide, and director to discuss everything as well as bring in the materials, medication bag, preschool binder with emergency action plan, wet wipes, bin of kitchen items, and bin of safe snacks so that everything would be in place on the first day. 
This picture was from Dr. Seuss day. Shea always sat on an end of a table and next to children who were not messy eaters, especially on days when the snack was not one that was safe for her.
Q: Tell us about your "snack time" strategy.
Every day I would review the snack which the parent brought into class. I'd tell the aide whether or not Shea could eat the snack and she'd put up a put up a big laminated STOP or GO sign on the snack cabinet. This would notify Shea and the staff whether or not she could eat the parent's snack, or choose a snack from her safe snack bin.

The teacher then thought to add Velcro to the cabinet door and the back of these to make it easy to remember to put up each class. She made a little pocket that they were in on the cabinet that had Shea’s Preschool Binder as well as Emergency Action Plan and extra medication.  

I supplied the teacher with a list of snacks that should be safe for Shea, but I still read the ingredients each time to be sure. Most of the time, parents tried to get at least part of the snack to be safe for Shea.  She could eat fruit, but if someone cut it at home the issue was what did they wash it in (same colander as pasta?), or the knife and cutting board it was cut with and on (same as bread or cheese or peanut butter?).  I did leave a small bin in the class room that the teacher/aide used for food in the classroom.  Parents would bring in fruit/veggies in the same packaging as they bought them. Then the snack was washed and prepped in the classroom prior to snack time.    

Q: How did you interact with school staff and parents in relation to your daughter’s food allergies?
A: I really worked hard to remain positive and firm. There were some items for us that were not negotiable – medicine had to go with her at all times was top on the list. With that said though, I tried to remain flexible, helpful and grateful as we worked through issues that arose – for example the Thanksgiving feast. 

We actually met ahead of time to figure a way to include Shea in it as much as possible.   The plan was for the class to make butter for the feast by shaking cream with marbles. But instead of making butter, the school agreed to make apple butter (apples, cinnamon and sugar).  

Q: Can you give examples of what worked well during the year?
A: I don’t know where to begin. SO many things worked well. Communication – having open communication with the director and teacher. The teacher would send me an overview of her lesson plans for the month – this was a way that we could work together to raise red flags on things and work to problem solve ahead of time.  

For instance – planting flower seeds. We had to try to find a safe potting soil (many contain plant byproducts including nuts). We ended up having Shea wear garden gloves and the teacher was sure to have all children wash hands thoroughly after handling the soil.

Q: Can you give examples of what didn't work well during the year?
A:  There were a couple parents (only 2) that just didn't ‘get it’ and still brought in Nutter Butters for a snack. The teacher did stop those at the door because the school had a no peanut policy. The parent was not happy about it, but just didn't understand.   It was her child’s favorite and she didn't quite grasp the severity of food allergies for some children. The positive was that the school/teacher handled it well, the parent did not. 

There are going to be issues that arise. I applauded the school for being proactive about all events so we weren't scrambling at the last minute. One of the things that came up was paper mache – the class always made it with flour and water since it's so inexpensive. We worked through a way that Shea’s class used a different mix of glue and water.  The classes that used flour were able to do it outside with smocks on.  They also washed their hands afterwards.

Q: What food allergy related mistakes do you see other parents of children with food allergies making?
A: I don’t think I would say mistakes, but just missed opportunities or “teaching moments”.  I always taught my daughter to ask “is this safe for me” rather than “may I have this”. This question would raise awareness as to why is she asking.  Especially on the days that there was a substitute teacher or aide. She actually noticed that the soap was a different color and asked the teacher about it. Teach your child early to start self-advocating.  

I also believe there has to be communications on both sides. Both parties have to be willing to discuss and problem solve together. Listening to the reasons for why there has to be a certain feast or food related event can help to come to some type of solution.  

The biggest suggestion that I would have is to have a willingness to help – from volunteering at events or being the classroom parent, to bringing in safe items, to being a source of information about food allergies. 

Communication with Shea's teacher, Sara Scanlon (pictured here), was key in keeping Shea safe.
This photo shows Shea and her preschool teacher, Sara Scanlon, on her last day of preschool. I was in tears, getting ready to thank her for teaching Shea and taking such good care of her.  Then, Miss Scanlon said, “I want to thank you trusting us to teach Shea.” She then went on to tell me how much she enjoyed having her in class.  

This was from a teacher who had to check labels on everything, do extra cleaning, think ahead for lesson planning, always remember to grab Shea’s medical bag (with EpiPens), wipe hands, wash hands, etc. Honestly, I was speechless. I always feel like I need to thank everyone else for doing all of that work, and she was thanking me.  

Jenine also ask for perspective from the pre-school Director and Teacher. Here is what they said:

Perspective from the pre-school Director, Darlene Runyen:
I appreciated your willingness to come and speak to and instruct the staff prior to the start of the school year.   If the parent of the child is not equipped to do so then I think that it would be beneficial for the parent to find someone (like yourself) to do it.  The information that you provided was invaluable and I believe that it caused us all to be more diligent. 

From a financial perspective, I appreciated that you were willing to purchase and/or have those items donated which were Shea safe.  I'm not sure that every parent is willing to do that.  Additionally, if there was a craft that had potential to be harmful you would investigate until you found an alternative method and or medium.  Again, greatly appreciated. 

Having said these things, you have to take much of the credit for Shea's positive experience here at pre-school.  You were a joy to work with and that's a director's delight!

Perspective from the pre-school teacher, Sara Scanlon:
I would say that from a teacher’s perspective, it is essential to have the parents give you the student’s action plan along with a list of acceptable snacks.  It was EXTREMELY helpful to have the bin of kitchen supplies for Shea so I never needed to worry about have a clean colander or other items for kitchen activities.  Communication is key on both sides.  You need to have teachers who understand the severity of allergies and take things seriously and parents who are willing to take the time and communicate with the teacher.  

Things I would say were above and beyond helpful were:
  • Safe kitchen box
  • Safe play dough and toys
  • Having the parents supply wet wipes
  • Having the parents attend field trips and other special events
I was always to thankful when you offered to supply certain things.  It took a weight off my shoulders knowing that you had already approved it and that I didn't have to worry about finding the correct items in the store!

Shea on the day of her preschool graduation. She was so proud!
Here are some of the helpful items Jenine prepared to make Shea's preschool experience a great one!

Kitchen Bin items:
Colander, 2 small baking sheets, 1 rack, 1 mixing bowl, measuring spoons and cup, spatula, cutting board, sharp knife, kitchen towel, and peeler.

Safe snack bin:
Mostly safe healthy snacks, but a few treats too.

Shea’s Preschool Binder included:

     KFA also offers additional information to help parents prepare to enroll their child in daycare or preschool. 

     For parents who have "been there done that" with their children, what are your tips for preparing you and your child for daycare or preschool?


Diane said...

This is a very interesting post Kathryn, it puts everything into perspective doesn't it, I hope there are a lot more teachers out there like Sara Scanlon.

Kathryn @ Mamacado said...

I agree Diane! I hope Little Guy's future teachers are so wonderful and willing to work with us!

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