Children's medical conditions at school

Amidst all of the back-to-school bustle, some families must add their child's chronic medical condition to the list of September stresses.

If your child has a chronic condition like diabetes, asthma, or epilepsy, or if he or she has a significant food allergy, a little extra planning can ensure a safe, healthy, and low-stress school year. For instance, children with diabetes may need to be given insulin injections or check their blood sugar, and parents of a child with asthma may be concerned about air quality in the school. And school staff will need to know what to do in the event of an epileptic seizure or the signs to watch for if a child is exposed to a food allergen.

Every medical condition will call for slightly different measures and plans, but a few commonalities apply to most:

  • Keep your child's emergency contact information as up-to-date and thorough as possible. List contacts in order of preference that they be called, and offer clearly marked alternative phone numbers for each, if available (mobile phone, work number, etc.). Include in this list the contact information for your child's pediatrician, primary physician, or dentist, as necessary.
  • Inform the school of your child's condition. Write up a document including a brief medical history, medications your child requires, and details about your child's special needs and/or restrictions (physical activity, dietary considerations). Be clear, concise, and complete so that directives can be easily followed.
  • Ask for a meeting with relevant school staff to discuss your child's emergency care plan. When it comes to your child's health, you want to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. You will need to work together with your child's school to draft a plan detailing the actions and responsibilities in case of an emergency. This plan may also include details about administering medication or treatments within the school day and during class field trips. Invitees to such a meeting may include your child's teacher, principal, school nurse, and P.E. coach; the coordinator of special needs services; as well as any aids or health care providers who may have helpful input. If your child is old enough, he or she should also be involved in the planning.
  • Keep in touch. Check in with your child's teacher for any changes in behaviour or energy levels. Ask your child how things are going at school, if they take their medication as they should, if they feel different or are having any trouble with other children in regard to their condition. And be a strong advocate for your child's health by following up with the school to revisit or update your child's care and emergency plans.

School lunch bag safety

Time and space constraints in schools mean that students often toss lunch bags into a shared classroom bin, cubbies, lockers, or other storage spaces. Sometimes bins are kept outdoors, exposing lunches to heat or cold. Most schools simply cannot offer students space in a refrigerator to keep their food safe from bacteria or cross-contamination. Parents can prevent foodborne illness by practicing a few simple safety habits:

Pack for posterity: The foods that can "keep" the longest are a better bet for lunch bags.

  • Minimize highly perishable foods, like mayonnaise, eggs, butter, milk-based products, and even those popular lunch meat combos kids seem to love.
  • Opt for non-perishable foods and drinks - water, whole and dried fruits, crackers and chips, cereals and breads, or nuts and seeds.
  • Sandwiches make an easy go-to choice, but keep in mind that lunch meats and tuna require refrigeration to stay safe. Old-fashioned peanut butter and jelly may be nixed from many menus because of fear of food allergies, but it is a natural in a sack lunch because it won't go bad.

Pack with temperature in mind: Depending on schedules, your child's lunch will need to "keep" for at least 2 to 3 hours.

  • If food should be eaten cold, use frozen freezer packs or an insulated lunch box.
  • If food should be eaten hot, heat food before your child leaves for school and store in a heat-preserving container or thermos.
  • Freeze a juice box or yogurt snack ahead of time and use these items to keep other foods cool until mealtime.
  • Consider an insulated lunchbox or freezable gel packs to keep lunches at their safest temperatures.

Practice a safe lunchtime routine with your child: Remind your child of the habits they need to practice each day when they hit the cafeteria.

  • Talk to your child about the lunch bag storage situation and remind them to store their lunch in a cool, dry place out of the sun and away from other heat sources.
  • Discuss hygiene, going over the right way to wash your hands or how to use a sanitary hand wipe before and after their meal.
  • Remind your child to throw out perishable leftovers instead of toting them home. Too many moms and dads have found rotten, stinky surprises in their children's lunch bags!

Sort out sharing rules: You try your best to raise generous kids who share without prompting, and then turn and tell them not to share their lunch food or drinks!

  • In an age-appropriate way, explain to your child why sharing a drink bottle or straw is not a good idea (risk of spreading germs).
  • Talk to your child about why you probably shouldn't swap snacks with a schoolmate (you never know who's allergic to what).

Keep a clean, tidy lunch bag: While you can't control what happens to your child's lunch during the school day, you can work together with your child to keep their lunch bags clean.

  • Follow manufacturer's instructions for cleaning lunch bags.
  • Teach your child to wipe down and clean their own lunch bag inside and out after they've eaten their school meals.

Food safety starts at home: Follow smart food safety practices when preparing lunches at home.

  • Thoroughly wash your hands before and after handling food.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables well.
  • Keep kitchen surfaces sanitized and have plenty of laundered dishcloths or towels on hand.
  • Pay attention to the "use by" dates on food packaging.
  • Do not reuse plastic bags and food wrappers.

Playground safety

If you've taken your child to city parks, you may have noticed that playgrounds have changed a bit since you were a kid. Gone are the metal, wood, and concrete. In their place, you'll see lots of brightly coloured plastic and spongy, foam-like ground covering.

Despite the modern safety upgrades, children still fall from monkey bars, get burned by hot slides, and get catapulted off of swings or seesaws by over-exuberant playmates. Kids still sport bruises and bumps, scrapes and cuts, knocked-out teeth, and fractures and sprains.

Teachers and P.E. coaches often take students on tours of the school playground and go over safety rules and tips and "play skills." Still, most playground injuries happen to 5- to 9-year-olds, so it wouldn't hurt to take your younger students to the park to go over some safety basics one-on-one:

  • Know the slide rules: You'd think slides would be simple stuff to explain. They go down, right? Well, kids will find all sorts of creative ways to slide wrong. First off, give your child time to practise getting up the stairs safely. Then set a "bums-not-bellies" rule, emphasizing how important it is to go down feet first, one child at a time. Remind your child to check the bottom of the slide to prevent collisions with straggling sliders.
  • Get in the swing: Playground swings are the sources of many childhood injuries, from fingers caught in chains to kids who face-plant when trying to leap out mid-arc. Warn that no matter how cool some daredevil kid looks, it hurts to fall and a broken arm could be the result. Go over the proper swing posture - sitting, not standing or kneeling - and set a safe distance for walking around or near active swings. Two-to-a-swing may seem fun for best buddies, but swings are only built to safely hold one child at a time.
  • Set the seesaw scene: You may see fewer teeter-totters these days. Too bad, since more than any other piece of playground equipment, a seesaw requires cooperation and communication. Practise with your child the art of balancing and landing without thudding into the ground or springing your partner out of their seat. Talk about how tricky and unsafe it would be to work a seesaw if you faced the wrong direction, let go of your post, or horsed around.
  • Don't go off the rails: One kind of equipment you may see more of is the track ride, or slider, as kids often call it. Sliders are made up of a suspended handle that slides along a track. To use one of these rides, children grab onto the handle with both hands and propel themselves across the track. Sliders may not be used by children under a certain height. These rides definitely take some practice and getting used to, so this is a good one to work on together outside of school. Test whether your child is tall enough and whether he or she has enough upper body strength to make the slider slide, and practise proper dismount.
  • Clear the area: Especially at early-morning recess when students first arrive at school, the playground can become a minefield of potential trips and falls and injuries, with backpacks, books, balls, and jump-ropes strewn all over play surfaces. Discuss with your child the safest spots to leave their school materials. And while you would hope it would go without saying, warn your child against tying jump ropes to playground equipment.
  • Don't dress for danger: Cords and drawstrings on clothes pose a playground safety risk, since they can become caught or snagged in play equipment. Same goes for hoods, draping fabric, purses, long keychains, scarves, and even shoelaces. Snaps, buttons, Velcro, or elastic are safer bets.

Other playground pointers to discuss with your child: keeping "roughhousing" play away from structures, equipment, and crowded areas; looking before leaping off any structure or equipment; and testing the temperature of equipment on hot days.

Simple ways to foster independence for school success

Children learn more at school than just reading, writing, and arithmetic. School is a place for children to practise interpersonal skills - like interdependence and sharing. And school is a safe place for kids to "have a go" at independence.

An independent student may be more comfortable tackling a tough math problem or making sense of a new word. An independent student may maintain optimism and try hard despite fear of failure. You can foster your child's independence in simple ways every day:

Hand over all "homework housework." Depending on your child's age, homework may be but a few minutes of shared reading and some colouring or a full-on essay or science project. While you should assuredly be aware and involved in your child's home studies, you should also stand back and let your child lead the way. Homework is an opportunity for children to hone their skills as planners, organizers, time managers, decision makers, and problem solvers. Likewise, children can be given the responsibility of keeping their workspace tidy and loading their backpack with their supplies and books.

Give your child (gradually widening) space. Children don't have control over too much in their lives. You can give your child space at home - a special homework space, safe and unsupervised playtime, their own room. And you can give your child space at school, too. One example is the morning drop-off process. Some parents only feel comfortable letting go of their young child's hand when they can pass their child's hand directly over to their teacher. But once you and your child understand the drop-off process and the route to the classroom or playground, let your child do it themselves. Those few moments on their own may be met with tears and fears at first. Stick to it: It gets easier!

Give your child (gradually expanding) responsibility at home. Being held accountable to regular chores may pay off in your child's classroom accountability. Chores can seem like more work than they're worth. Is it really worth fighting over an unmade bed or a messy room? Yes, especially when you consider that teachers often assign students to classroom jobs and responsibilities, including watering plants, fetching snack bins, or tidying up the corner book nook.

Let your child choose. Your child will need to make decisions all throughout the school day. If parents dictate every tiny decision at home, children may be unable to sort through their many options in the cafeteria, on the playground, or in the school library. One way to practise choice at home is with food and clothing. Offer up 3 snack options and let your child decide which they'd prefer. Pick out 3 school-appropriate outfits and your child can choose their favourite.

Let your child lose. If all a kid knows is A+ and "Perfect!", how will she react when she misses the mark? Will she fold or will she fight? Yes, it hurts to watch your child hurt. But instead of swooping in to save the day whenever your child faces a challenge, encourage critical thinking and creative problem-solving. Rather than giving an answer to a homework question, brainstorm with your child ways to solve it. Of course, you want to keep your child out of harm's way and prevent injury or distress, but small moments of struggle are where a child gains strength as an individual.

Be a model of independence. Your children learn from their teachers, but they learn from you, too. Show them the hard work that goes into making decisions and facing challenges. Let your child in on short-term goals you set and talk about how you hope to achieve them. Talk about times you've struggled with new learning or about how you realized the cause-and-effect connection in your successes and failures.