Tips on how to include children with food allergies in school activities, reduce anxiety and help avoid bullying
Children with food allergies are sometimes excluded or bullied. According to a recent study, 1 in 3 children with food allergies experience some form of bullying because of their allergy, whether that’s physical bullying, verbal bullying or social exclusion. Bullying can be teasing a child, chasing them with the food they are allergic to, tricking them into eating a particular food or threatening them with their allergen. Bullying should not be tolerated and must be taken seriously. Any attempt to harm a student with an allergy in the school setting must be treated as a serious incident and addressed in line with the school’s anti-bullying policy.
As children must avoid food that contains their allergen(s), they may feel left out of, or not fully included in, school and social activities where food is involved. It is important to do what we can to help keep children with food allergies safe because allergic reactions are serious. However, there are ways to keep children safe without excluding or singling them out.
Outlined below are some tips on how to ensure that children with food allergies are included in all areas of school life:
Lessons and activities
All children should be able to do the same activity together. This means that children with food allergies might have to do the activity a little differently, but should not have to engage in a ‘different’ activity or be separated from the rest of the class.
To make this possible, it is important to avoid all lesson, craft and activity supplies that contain a child’s food allergen. Some examples include:
- If a child is allergic to wheat, do not use modelling clay made with wheat
- If a child is allergic to milk, do not plan an activity that involves empty milk bottles or cartons, because they could still contain small amounts of milk.
Consideration must also be given to cooking or food technology classes:
- Teachers are encouraged to speak with parents or guardians and older children prior to cooking sessions and activities using food.
- Teachers should also remind all children not to share food with others that they have cooked at school, including during morning tea, lunch breaks and after school.
Tip: Where possible, encouraging children to wash their hands before entering the classroom or starting the activity is another way to help keep the space as safe as possible.
Children with food allergies should not miss school trips, excursions, or camps because of their food allergies.
To increase safety, all details of the trip should be discussed in advance with the parents of the child with food allergies (and the child if appropriate) to allow parents to raise any concerns about safety or inclusion and give everyone time to assess risk and work on strategies to reduce it. Resources to help guide parents and teachers include A&AA’s Preparing for camp e-book and the National Allergy Strategy webinars on ‘Managing your child’s food allergy at camp’, and at primary and high school.
An ‘allergen-free’ table might seem like an effective way to keep children with food allergies safe, but there are other ways to arrange mealtime seating that are more inclusive, while still designed with safety in mind. For example, with young children you could have a child with food allergies sit at a table with their friends who are ‘tidy eaters.’ Remember that supervision when eating is always essential no matter what safety plans you have in place.
Importantly, all children need to understand they should not share food or drinks because it can make their friends with food allergy sick. Children should be encouraged to wash their hands after eating, especially if they have eaten the food another child is allergic to. Children with food allergies should wash their hands before eating.
There are plenty of ways to reward children for good behaviour or great schoolwork that do not involve food. Non-food rewards allow every child to enjoy them. Try some of these:
- ‘passes’ for a classroom privilege, such as a no-homework pass or a special classroom job
- extra time to play a fun game
- prize boxes where children can pick a toy, puzzle, sticker, or other non-food reward
- recognition on a classroom wall, in an announcement, or in a note home to the child’s family.
Allergy awareness education
Peer and community education is important to support students with food allergies and may help reduce the possibility of children missing out or being bullied. Consider using A&AA Be A Mate resources to communicate the following important messages:
- take food allergies seriously
- don’t share food or drinks with friends who have food allergies
- wash your hands after eating
- get help immediately if your friend with food allergy becomes sick (even if they do not want you to)
- know what your friends are allergic to.
Identifying children with allergies
A&AA recommends that children with allergies are not singled out in the classroom or the playground by using different coloured hats or badges. Teachers supervising children with allergies should have up-to-date training in the recognition, management and emergency treatment of anaphylaxis and know the children with severe allergies by sight. Several strategies that are manageable should be in place to minimise the risk of an allergic reaction occurring. Emergency response plans should also be in place so that teachers know what to do if an allergic reaction, including anaphylaxis, occurs in a classroom, on the oval, on an excursion, etc.
Having a prescribed adrenaline injector nearby
Carrying your own adrenaline injector does not necessarily mean wearing the adrenaline injector.
Children in primary school up to age 10–11, should not wear their adrenaline injector on their person. When the child is in Year 5 or 6, the parent can discuss with the child taking more responsibility for keeping their adrenaline injector close by because in high school most students take their emergency medication to and from school. The plan for the best approach should be decided after a discussion between school staff, the parent or carer, and the student. The practice of making a child wear their adrenaline injector (such as in a bum bag or cross body bag) may contribute to making the child anxious and a target for bullying. This anxiety can result from the fear that they need the injector on them, instead of near them at all times. It may also result in the child always thinking about their potential for a severe allergic reaction.
Children (and adults) at risk of anaphylaxis need to do some things differently to others, but making children wear their adrenaline injector places an unnecessary burden on the child. Children need to be told that the adrenaline injector is nearby and available if needed. A plan on how to get the adrenaline injector to the student within a few minutes should be discussed and put in place.
Parents must always provide the school with at least one adrenaline injector that has been prescribed for their child. Until late primary or secondary school, staff should always be responsible for the student’s adrenaline injector when at school. It is important to remember that even when the student has more responsibility for personal management of their adrenaline injector, it does not mean they will be able to administer it in an emergency. Staff have a duty of care to administer the adrenaline injector to students experiencing a severe allergic reaction up until students finish school in Year 12.
Individual circumstances such as maturity of the child and school size need to be considered when deciding what age a student should start carrying their own adrenaline injector.
For more information on managing food allergies in schools, head to the Best practice guidelines for anaphylaxis prevention and management in schools.