On average 1 to 2 pupils in every class of 30 will have a food allergy and 20% of the most serious allergic reactions happen in school. So, supporting pupils with food allergies is really important and should be seen as a whole school responsibility.
How pupils feel about their allergies and how confident they feel about managing them at school will depend on a number of factors. For example, young people with less common allergens, which are unlikely to crop up in school meals, may feel more relaxed at school than pupils who are allergic to common foods such as milk or egg. The age of the pupils will play a large part too, as will their experience of having allergic reactions in the past.
Learn about food allergies and take them seriously
Make sure you understand how food allergies differ to food intolerances or dietary choices and how serious they can be. If someone with an allergy eats just a trace of the wrong food it can make them very ill, so people with allergies must completely avoid the foods they are allergic to. Living with this serious medical condition adds an extra mental and emotional burden, which pupils with allergies have to cope with all the time. They may feel more anxious than others around mealtimes and have medication they need to manage.
Teach all pupils about food allergies
As well as talks and assemblies explaining what food allergies are and how serious they can be, consider other ways to teach all pupils about allergies. For example, during a food tech lesson or cooking class, why not check the ingredients’ label for allergens, as well as nutritional information. Explaining why some ingredients appear in bold may lead to a deeper discussion about food allergies and why people with allergies must completely avoid certain foods.
Research has shown that children with food allergies are twice as likely to be bullied as those without. Look out for your pupils with allergies and take opportunities to educate all students about this serious medical condition to build empathy. You may need to consider carefully how to do this without singling out or adding to the stigma felt by students with allergies.
Have a stash of safe snacks or offer alternatives for rewards and celebrations
If your school allows foods to be brought in to celebrate birthdays or festivals, consider offering everyone in the class treats which are safe for your pupils with allergies. Inclusion is hugely important and will help build confidence in both your students and their parents or carers. Some schools don’t allow food treats and allow students to choose a class book to read or a class game to play instead.
Make sure you and your colleagues are trained to recognise and treat allergic reactions, including how to administer potentially life-saving adrenaline. It’s not good enough to have a handful of staff members who know how to use an EpiPen because you never know when or where a serious allergic reaction will happen. Sometimes people with no prior history of allergies will suffer anaphylaxis, so you need to be prepared. Pupils and their parents will feel more confident and better supported if they know you know how to respond in an emergency. You can watch The Allergy Team’s training videos here.
Manage mental health
Every now and then check in with your pupils with food allergies and ask how they are coping. If you notice they are anxious around mealtimes, speak to them and/or their parents and carers. Be alert to upcoming trips and events and how your pupils with allergies might be feeling, and make sure you champion inclusion so all pupils can enjoy all aspects of school life.
Exclude the food not the child
Most activities should be safe for children with food allergies or adapted with ease. For example, if you are baking a cake in a cooking or food tech class and you have a pupil with an egg allergy, why not get the whole class to make an egg free cake. Where inclusive alternatives aren’t possible, consider changing the activity rather than asking the child to sit out. Feeling part of daily school life is important for everyone.
More about Sarah Knight and The Allergy Team: Sarah is the mother of two boys with multiple food allergies. She set up The Allergy Team to support other families and to improve education and awareness about this chronic medical condition. As well as offering free meet ups for parents and carers, The Allergy Team holds expert Q&As and has a website packed with information about living with allergies. The Allergy Team also works with schools to keep pupils safer and offers training and consulting to businesses.