I’ve spent the summer researching a feature article on Starting School with Allergies, so I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned here.
Anyone who has a child with allergies probably heard about the recent inquest into the death of 16-year-old Sydney student Raymond Cho, who died after eating a biscuit containing nuts at school. The biscuit was given to Raymond by other students who had baked it in a school cooking class. Hearing about this incident was a huge wake-up call to me, but it also demonstrates the huge responsibility teachers now face looking after children at risk of anaphylaxis. Thankfully deaths of school students with allergies are extremely rare, but they do happen every few years, so everybody who is part of a school community needs to be aware of allergies and the challenge they present to parents, teachers and students.
So what needs to happen when a child with allergies is starting school for the first time?
Since the death of Raymond Cho, the Department of Education and Communities has released some updated Procedures for public schools. They’re very new, but there are now some clear things that must happen if a school has a child enrolled with severe allergies. They must train their staff in anaphylaxis and emergency care, they must keep a spare EpiPen in their first aid kit that can be given to any child, even one who has not been previously diagnosed with an allergy, and they can and should use another child’s EpiPen if they think a child is having a life-threatening allergic reaction. So check that your school has implemented those things so you can be confident that your child will receive proper emergency care if the worst happens. You should also check with school staff that your child will be given a second EpiPen if needed.
Secondly, every parent should get a face-to-face meeting with a school representative to work out a unique health care plan for their child. This is now mandatory. When my daughter enrolled, we just handed in the paperwork and that was that. What should happen is that you should sit down with the school and together work out some strategies that will reduce the risk of your child having an allergic reaction at school. Those strategies will be different depending on the child and the specific allergy. So that might mean sending a note home to the other class parents to tell them about your child’s allergy. You might need to request that they don’t send certain foods to school, like peanut butter sandwiches. Don’t just assume the school will be nut-free or peanut-free, many schools aren’t. You might want to speak to the class, and show them a video or read them a book to teach them about allergies. You might instigate something like making sure the children wash their hands before and after eating, or that they eat lunch supervised in the classroom for ten minutes before heading out to play. Or you could get a sticker made up for the children’s lunchboxes that says, “Please don’t share food.” My experience is that even though kids know they’re not supposed to share food, they still do it all the time, so you need to keep pushing that message. Whatever strategies you decide on, the parents and the school should work it out together to make sure the solutions are workable, both for the child with allergies and for the rest of the school community.
What about the school canteen – is it safe to use?
Parents of children with allergies have to just work out for themselves whether or not they think the canteen is okay for their child. Personally I’ve decided not to let my daughter use the canteen, because our school uses a huge roster of volunteers, some of whom help out as little as once a month. With so many people on the roster, it’s inevitable that some of them won’t be clued up on allergies and that mistakes could be made. Caillie has already been sold products containing traces of nuts from the canteen because the packaging wasn’t checked thoroughly enough. So again, don’t just assume the canteen will be safe because they say it’s a nut-free canteen. Find out how it actually operates and then decide if it’s safe. It only takes one time that they run out of tomato sauce, somebody runs across to Woolies and buys a different brand than usual and suddenly the sauce has traces of peanuts or dairy.
What do parents need to teach the child with allergies so that they can keep themselves safe?
According to Dr Elizabeth Pickford from RPAH Allergy Clinic there are four main things children need to know before starting school
1) You need to make sure the child knows what they are allergic to and what foods are likely to contain that allergen. That sounds obvious, but as I go around pre-schools a lot of kids don’t know their own allergies.
2) They need to know to always ask a trusted adult if foods contain their allergen and that if there is any doubt they should just say ‘no’. As they get older they should be taught how to read the ingredients themselves.
3) They and all their friends need to be continually reminded not to share food with other children
4) If they feel sick, they need to tell the teacher immediately because the teacher can help them.
I also think kids need to know that they shouldn’t be ashamed of their allergies. Kids who feel different or ashamed are much less likely to speak up when they need to and for children with allergies speaking up is a survival skill.
In all of this, the main thing is ongoing communication, so keep talking to your teacher, the other parents and your child. And if you have an instinct that things aren’t quite right, then make sure you speak up. You can’t be shy if your child has a serious allergy.
You can read the new Anaphylaxis Procedures for NSW Schools here
Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (including free online training)
My children’s book Marty’s Nut-Free Party is a great resource for the classroom
Trigger Food Allergy Awareness Video, also a great resource for teachers.
The Next Big Thing is a blog chain for writers and artists linking together and talking about their current projects. It gives you a chance to discover new writers and blogs but also brings together writers across different genres. Each creator is required to answer a set series of questions and then pass the baton to someone else.
Last week children’s author Penny Reeve shared about her upcoming picture book ‘Wonderfully Madison’, illustrated by Jemima Trappel, which will be published later this year by Growing Faith. Penny kindly asked me to follow her in the chain. So here’s my contribution.
1. What is the working title of your next book?
Emily the Energetic Elephant.
2. Where did the idea come from for the book?
When I was working on Marty’s Nut-Free Party, people kept asking me if I was going to write another book about allergies. I had always intended Marty to be a stand-alone book, but after I saw the beautiful illustrations and the wonderful characters that Leigh Hedstrom had created, I thought it might be nice to give the other characters their own story too. Asthma is the most common chronic childhood illness and my eldest daughter has had a long struggle with it, including being hospitalized a number of times, so I knew the next book had to be about that. I wanted to write a book that would teach children to recognize the triggers for and symptoms of their asthma so they can learn to manage it better, while still living an active lifestyle.
3. What genre does your book fall under?
It’s a children’s picture book, which will be illustrated by Leigh Hedstrom.
4. What actors would you choose to play the parts of your characters in a movie rendition?
I think you’d be hard-pressed to make a movie out of a 500 word picture book – it’d have to be more strung out than Seven Years in Tibet and I don’t think anybody would want that.
5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Emily was full of energy. But sometimes, when her asthma got bad, Emily was not allowed to be active. How can Emily improve her asthma and find an outlet for her energy?
(OK I know that’s three sentences, but they’re short ones!)
6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Emily the Energetic Elephant is being published by Wombat Books.
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I slaved away on it for twelve years, went through three marriages and lost most of my hair in the process. Actually it was a very fast process. I created the first document on August 22, 2012 and I received the final edited version back from the publisher on October 26, just two months later. In that time I did six rewrites and the ending changed a number of times, but essentially it’s the same story.
8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I actually haven’t found too many books that teach children about health issues within the structure of a good story, but the closest would probably be Coming Home by Sharon McGuiness and of course, Marty’s Nut-Free Party. There’s also a great book from the US called The Princess and the Peanut, which is a fun take on peanut allergies.
9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The main inspiration was the number of long nights we’ve spent at Westmead Children’s Hospital with Caillie when she’s had severe asthma. There was one time a GP told me Caillie didn’t have asthma because she couldn’t hear any wheeze. Caillie was extremely lethargic by this point. The GP told me to give her paracetemol, wait half an hour and then if she wasn’t showing any improvement, to take her to hospital. Seeing how floppy she was when we got home, I decided to go straight to emergency, where they tested her oxygen and discovered it was dangerously low. The doctor there told me the reason there was no wheeze was because she wasn’t getting enough air into her lungs to make the wheezing sound. After she’d been on ventolin for 20 minutes the wheeze appeared and Caillie became more alert again. It made me realize how important it is for families to know as much as possible about their child’s condition, the triggers, how it presents etc so they can make good decisions about their child’s health.
There were also a number of powerful images that inspired me in the creation of the story line. I saw a beautiful underwater video of elephants swimming in the ocean and was struck by what a lovely and unusual image it was. I also saw a funny CG video of an elephant bouncing on a trampoline and I thought it might be humorous to have an elephant doing all sorts of athletic and energetic actions, such as trampolining, scooting and swinging. I also wanted to write a story that would give the illustrator lots of potential for creating fun, energetic pictures, full of life and movement. And of course, Emily has to take control of her health and find positive ways to work with her condition.
10. What else about the book might pique a reader’s interest?
Marty makes a re-appearance in the book, as does a number of his friends. I’m hoping there will be a lot of humour in the illustrations (no pressure, Leigh!).