The perils of having a school-age child diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten-intolerance are varied and somewhat complicated: on the one hand, educating your child about their own dietary needs and limitations can be difficult. Teaching them the importance of avoiding gluten (sorry, Sonny, no cupcakes at the class party) while simultaneously not making them feel singled out is often, at best, a subject filled with disappointment.
On the other hand, there is a need to educate school staff not only about the many ways a child can be inadvertently exposed to gluten but also about how to treat the subject with some degree of sensitivity. At an age when most young children are just trying to fit in, the last thing anyone wants to do is make them see their unique dietary needs as a negative.
So where do you start? How can you help your child navigate the classroom and the cafeteria without any tears?
First: teach them to be celiac & proud
The best way to start this process is to make your child their own advocate. Show them that they have an opportunity to teach others about themselves. With the right attitude and a few facts, they can feel like an intrepid emissary, out to show others what being gluten-free really means.
President of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, Alice Bast, wrote a great article about how to use games and toys to teach your young child about gluten-free dietary needs. Things like a trip to the grocery store can become learning experiences with a little parental finesse.
If your child has just been diagnosed, there are also some frequently asked questions you may need to be prepared to answer in a way that is positive and unintimidating. There are a few examples here of some responses as well as some fantastic “pep talks” here to encourage a positive attitude about the gluten-free lifestyle.
Finally, never underestimate the power of a good book. Delightfully illustrated reads like Eating Gluten-Free with Emily are both relatable and educational. See this full list of books and activities you can order to help your child understand celiac disease.
Second: touching base at school
The first people you should speak with after a confirmed celiac diagnosis are the school principal, nurse, dietitian and homeroom teacher. Come prepared with a letter from your child’s physician explaining the condition. Meet with an external dietitian to come up with some menu recommendations and easy substitutions that can be made to accommodate a gluten-free diet.
It’s important that teachers understand what to watch out for: foods from lunchboxes tend to get swapped and a kindergartener can’t understand the ingredients list on the back of the Valentine’s candy another child just handed to them. The Celiac Sprue Association has a great list of resources you can provide various staff, including the principal, teachers and cafeteria staff, about their roles in creating a safe gluten-free environment.
Also, it never hurts to equip teachers with a little back-up: give them a selection of gluten-free snacks they can keep on hand in case someone brings in classroom treats (as is known to happen from time to time) that your tyke can’t partake in. This will ensure they don’t feel totally left out or deprived. For instance, our individual packets of granola keep well, come in single-serving sizes and are sweet enough to please. You can also keep a few individually sized cheesecakes in the freezer for those occasions when something more decadent is called for (birthdays, Valentine’s parties and the like).
Third: know your rights
Legally, schools are required to make reasonable accommodations for children with celiac disease under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is well within your rights to ask that healthy snack alternatives and lunch options be made available, even if you intend to send your little one with a homemade meal each day. You never know what circumstances will arise, so being prepared for the eventuality that they will need to access school foods at some point is key.
For more information on communicating with students, parents, teachers and staff, take a look at some of the following resources:
- Children and Celiac Disease: Going Back to School via The Celiac Awareness Campaign
- Managing Celiac In Kids: It Takes A Village by Ritu Verma, MD
- Kids Central: Free Resources for Gluten-Free Kids & Parents via the NFCA
- 40 Days of Gluten-Free School Lunches via The Paleo Mama
With a little effort and a lot of planning, your child will be well on their way to a happy, healthy school year. Good luck, parents!