A few months ago, your child wrapped up another school year. You’ve been enjoying your summer and trying to ignore the new school year that is now upon us. This year will be a big one. Your child has left one stage of schooling behind and is ready to move up to the next one. It seems like just yesterday your son was starting kindergarten and you sat with the elementary school staff for the first time to work out an allergy action plan that would keep him safe, and now he’s an official middle schooler. Perhaps even more jolting: You’ve just gotten your arms around this middle school parent thing and now it’s on to high school. Yikes! That old adage is true: Time waits for no man.
Unless your teen’s food allergies were recently diagnosed, you may consider yourself an experienced pro at coordinating an allergy action plan with your child’s school. You know the routine. There’s paperwork to be filled out at the allergist. The doctor will help you identify what accommodations are needed. There may be meetings with a 504 coordinator and/or the school nurse. There will be conversations with the teacher. You’ll figure out how to get the auto-injector into the school by the first day along with its associated paperwork. You’ve got this down pat. Right? Before you jump into the same old routine, let’s hit pause for a moment. This shift from elementary school to middle school, or middle school to high school, is a big one for every student. There are new expectations and new responsibilities – and that will extend to the way your child’s food allergies are managed.
Self-Carry / Self-Administer
If your child’s auto-injector has been held in a designated spot accessible by a responsible, trained adult up to this point, this may be the year things change. At your annual “get the school forms filled out” appointment with your child’s allergist, ask about whether your child is ready to self-carry and/or self-administer epinephrine. As with many developmental milestones, there is no one right age for this change. Your allergist can help you assess whether your child is ready to be responsible for carrying their own auto-injectors and whether they are capable of giving themselves a dose of epinephrine if needed. The outcome of this conversation may change some of the accommodations you’ve previously requested as part of your child’s in-school allergy management plan. (Of course, if your child is going to self-carry, that doesn’t mean you can’t also keep a second set in the nurse’s office as backup.)
New Team Member
Previous 504 coordination meetings may have been an adult-only affair. This could be the appropriate time to bring your student to the table. Remember, your job as an allergy parent has always been two-fold: Keep your child safe and teach your child how to keep himself safe. It may feel like college and adult life is still far off, but it’s closer than you think. If you haven’t already started giving your tween/teen more responsibility in self-care within the realm of his allergies, now is the time to start. Part of this may be including him in discussions with the team that’s crafting his allergy management plan. This could be a helpful lesson in how to self-advocate. It also helps facilitate a sense of ownership for of his own health.
Beyond the Classroom
At this stage of your child’s school career, afterschool clubs and school sports can extend her school day beyond the class time. Teams travel to competitions. Clubs may have off-site meetings or activities. There may be team meals on the road. Overnights to championships. These activities mean your allergy planning must go beyond the school day. Work with the school, your child, and your allergist to identify the best accommodations for your teen’s specific needs.
Older students begin switching classes by subject. This also means there may be a new routine to when and how your child approaches lunch. He won’t be entering the cafeteria with the same class of students he’s spent all day with. He won’t have a single teacher march the class in by lines, and who can help facilitate whatever accommodations your allergy action plan has stipulated. Work with your allergist to identify what reasonable accommodations your student may need at this stage and include those in your discussions as you usually do. This may also, however, include handing over more responsibility for self-care to your child. Make sure he knows how to keep himself safe in an environment where his allergens may be present.
This developmental stage can be a hard one for hands-on parents, whether or not food allergies are part of the equation. Your child is pushing back and pulling away a little more each day. She’s trying to test her boundaries and spread her wings. She wants independence. She wants to go to the ice rink with her friends without you watching over them from the snack bar. She’s hoping you’ll forget to volunteer to chaperon the upcoming band trip. She’s starting to think about dating. That’s hard enough for any of us. For an allergy parent, we have another layer of concern: Can she handle her allergies without me there to be sure she’s doing it right? If you’ve not begun to work with your child to manage her own health needs, middle school is the time to start. Begin with small things and increase the responsibility in age-appropriate increments just like you would anything else at this developmental stage. Your allergist can help you identify where those age-appropriate parameters are.