Starting school can be both exciting and scary. If your child has the added complexities of coeliacs disease, it’s always a little bit harder. Dietary constraints must be dealt with not only when initially starting, but again each year with new teachers, parents and support staff.
Many schools are brilliant at dealing with multiple dietary requirements but some need a little advice. All schools have a duty to support pupils with medical conditions, but this is done in a myriad of different ways, so go with a positive frame of mind and educate politely as needed.
At the start of every year, there are people who need to be advised of your child’s needs. Here’s GF Pantry’s checklist on who to talk to.
- Discuss your needs with administration, enrolment or leadership staff as required. You might have an interview with the principal if your child is starting primary school, but at secondary school this may not be the most appropriate person and a year level leader may be more suitable. Most schools have policies to deal with dietary requirements. On enrolment, obtain a copy of any written policies and discuss how this will relate to your child.
- When class teachers are announced, write an email or letter to them explaining your child’s needs and attach any formal information to it. Copy the letter to class aides or other support staff. Advise the teacher that you would like the letter publicly shared with any adults needing to know, and that a copy should be kept in your child’s file. A written letter is important because people take things more seriously when they are written down– verbal advice is easily forgotten.
*A sample letter is shown at the end of this article, however all schools are different and have different food policies, so the letter should be customised to individual needs. Requirements may even differ from year level to year level, so it helps to find out from administration staff what year levels have which activities. There may be hot dog days, sushi days, days to celebrate other nations or so many other events. Birthday celebrations differ significantly and may also vary depending on the teacher. No one letter fits all schools or all classes.
- Speak in person to the teacher. A follow up discussion at a convenient time is very important; not on day one when everyone is entering the classroom and meeting the teacher. This gives you a chance to gauge the teacher’s understanding of the letter, reinforces the importance of the information and helps keep your child’s needs remembered at a busy time of year. Ask if younger classes can be taught safe eating practises. General hygiene is important but also the need to limit food sharing. Most schools already limit sharing but your teacher may help with further education of the class if he or she has appropriate materials to do so. Coeliac Australia has a child targeted PowerPoint presentation on coeliac disease that uses child friendly language. Early education can increase understanding, limit bullying and help with your child’s confidence.
- Inform parents of younger level kids. Privacy policies differ across schools but many schools will let you write a quick note to advise parents, or will in turn advise the parents for you. Ask the teacher if this can be done if you don’t get a class contact list. Older children who are taking responsibility for their own diets may prefer you don’t do this, but informal chatting would do the same.
- Other people to think about as they get older, may include home economics teachers, canteen staff and food providers on school camps and excursions. Most secondary schools have allergy /coeliac policies and recognise the importance of inclusion. Many class recipes can easily be altered and for standard baking they allow a gluten free bench with gluten free ingredients for your child and a partner. Canteen managers may love you to help as a volunteer on the day your child has a special order. If the canteen doesn’t already provide some gf alternatives, then they may be open to a few suggestions, or alternatively allow you to provide some alternatives in secure packaging. Label anything you provide with your child’s name and ‘gluten free’.
For excursions and camps, you can’t assume that the school will automatically request a gluten free meal. Remind the excursion leader early about your medically required food. You might wish to offer to contact the food provider for the school. Teach your child to politely query food prepared for him or her, to use judgement to decline food that may be unsafe and to seek help from a nominated teacher if it isn’t. You should also pack emergency snacks just in case. Remember if it all gets hard, camps are important development tools in your child’s pathway to independence. If they end up eating chips and lollies for a few days with a few pieces of fruit because they didn’t trust the food, it’s only for a few days.
As the year progresses, maintain open lines of communication. Volunteer to help at events if possible. If not, send in gluten free alternatives when needed. Keeping your child healthy is a joint responsibility. Parents, children and the school all need to do their bit and the roles change as children get older.
Younger children need to be taught basic hygiene practises before starting school. They should have a rough idea of what they can and can’t eat, and as soon as realistically possible should be taught to read labels. Teachers and other well-meaning adults get things wrong. They are not experts. Coeliac children will need to say no when this happens. The job of parents and teachers is to protect and educate, until their child can do so on their own. In the case of a coeliac child, the sooner they can read labels and voice their needs, the better.
Unfortunately there may be slipups or times of miscommunication. Sometimes people make mistakes, forget, are unaware, are unsure of what to do or are scared that they will make your child ill. Things happen and how you handle it will teach your child how to handle it. If you politely decline unsafe treats offered and tactfully give a little education, your child will hopefully learn to do the same. A little bit of friendly education usually helps more than anger.
The Australian Coeliac Society childcare resource pack is highly recommended. It can be used by childcare providers, teachers, school canteens and after school care providers. It includes a teachers’ guide, management action plan, risk minimisation plan, catering guide, ingredient list booklet and a great PowerPoint presentation aimed at young primary age children. It is free for Australian Coeliac Society members but can also be purchased by non-members for a charge. Visit https://www.coeliac.org.au/shop/products/childcare-resources/ for information.
Good Luck with everything. Remember the safety of your child is important and you must stand up for that, but policies and procedures will need to be made with the safety and education of all children kept in mind. Fingers crossed that you get a brilliant teacher and a great school that understands how to juggle the individual with the community. There are plenty of good teachers and schools out there.
Now to think about what you’ll put in their lunchboxes. For ideas there, see https://www.gfpantry.com/blogs/gluten-free-tips/exciting-lunchboxes-for-everyone
*Sample email letter for school teachers. This letter should be customised for your child. (Click to Download)
I was very happy to hear that Rose has you for her teacher this year. She is very excited. For your information, Rose has coeliac disease. This is an autoimmune disease that is triggered by ingesting gluten and she is medically required to avoid all gluten in her diet. It is not contagious or of any threat to any of the other children.
I've attached some information from the Australian Coeliac Society to help you to understand the disease and her needs. After you have read these, can you please ensure they are shown to all other support staff and teachers who may use gluten products. These copies are then for Rose’s school file as reference material.
In summary, Rose is not to eat any food containing gluten, wheat, barley, rye or oats. She is not allowed foods that say "May contain" any of these ingredients, or foods that through touching these ingredients (cross contamination) may have traces on them. eg: on hot dog days, a frankfurt that has been put in a normal roll can't just be pulled out and put in a gluten free one. She should also avoid any contact with other classmates’ snacks, or crumbs of snacks, that contain gluten. Ingesting a crumb of gluten can make her very sick.
To make life easier for yourself and Rose I suggest the following:
- Standard hygiene practices - Before eating Rose should wash her hands and the area she is to eat at should be cleaned. Gluten is not a bacteria and as such cannot be killed with antibacterial lotions; it can only be washed or wiped away.
- Birthday lolly bags – Rose knows not to eat any lollies given out as special birthday treats unless it’s something I've already okayed. She has a separate bag of treats for her to choose from when everyone else gets other treats. Can you please leave this in a special place for her.
- Birthday cakes. If you know children are bringing birthday cakes to school, can you please inform me a few days ahead of time so I can provide a gluten free cupcake for Rose. I can also provide spare cakes in individually labelled bags for her in the staff room freezer that can be pulled out for surprise occasions.
- School Parties. At this stage I'm happy to come to parties to help set up or if I’m not available, to just send a special treats lunchbox for her to eat from. If I come in, I’d just pull aside a few things that she can eat before all the wrappers are thrown in the bin, and have a gluten free area organised before the kids come through. Over time as she is more aware of her dietary restrictions, I hope to not have to come in at all. Who needs their mum at every party? Party foods that are usually gluten free include most chips, most popcorn, most rice crackers, most cheese and all raw fruit and vegetables. All packets must however be checked each time before consumption.
- Special food days – For hotdog day Rose won’t be having the gluten free hotdogs supplied by the school but I’ll send her own in a thermos. There are very good intentions in the kitchen, and I understand the parents association try their best, but cross contamination is still a problem so I am unable to risk the school parent prepared food at this stage. Other days will need to be assessed as they arrive.
- Other gluten - Rose must be careful with craft products that contain gluten, such as play dough, pasta, hay/straw, fingerpaints and paper maché. Rose won’t get a reaction just from touching the gluten; it’s more that her fingers might transfer it to her mouth or gluten gets under her fingernails and transferred later. Her hands must be thoroughly washed after using these products. Alternatively gluten free products are available for all these things.
I am happy for Rose’s condition to be shared at school. I give consent for her diagnosis to be shared with children, parents and other adults who bring food into the school. I can draft a letter to pass on to parents if you’d like, and provide you with child friendly coeliac information for the class. Coeliac Australia has a child appropriate PowerPoint presentation with information suitable for the kids.
It is important that Rose remains gluten free but if she does accidently ingest gluten, she will not have an immediate allergic response. There is no anaphylaxis, so no medicine or epipen is needed. I do however need to be advised if she has accidently ingested gluten. I need to understand why she may become sick, but also so we can try and make sure it doesn't happen again. Her pains/vomiting may not come on for a few hours and I will need to pinpoint the cause.
If you have any questions, please ask me. I'm happy to answer all questions, even ones which you may think silly at the time. I'm very aware that most parents and teachers have little knowledge of correct gluten free procedures as they have had no need to know. Thank you for your help. Apart from the gluten free requirements she will hopefully (fingers crossed) be easy to teach.
Attachment: Coeliac Society Resources - teachers’ guide, management action plan, risk minimisation plan