Teach Your Food-Allergic Children
Home instruction offers safe learning for food-allergic kids
Around our house, the first “back-to-school” day in August is a bit of a misnomer. For us, home is school.
My husband and I hadn’t planned to homeschool our kids. But when our oldest son, Kellen, was diagnosed with a lengthy list of food allergies, some with severe symptoms, homeschooling became one of several options we considered. We wavered over the decision during his toddlerhood. After all, I had loved school growing up and both my husband and I come from families that include teachers. But as the preschool years approached and my friends with young children began evaluating various early-education programs, I found myself at the local library, checking out all the books I could find about homeschooling. (See “Required Reading.”)
At that point, I was probably most driven by my instinct as a mom to protect Kellen. We’d witnessed the symptoms brought on when he accidentally ate—or sometimes simply touched—his allergens (hives, wheezing, swollen eyes and lips from dairy; acute stomach pain and nausea from eggs). Testing confirmed those allergies and revealed a few more, including wheat/gluten and some nuts. While his allergist reassured us that Kellen would likely grow out of his allergies in a few years, he said our best hope, in the meantime, was to avoid all contact with the offending foods.
Our minds swirled with questions and concerns: How would we keep Kellen safe when he started kindergarten and was suddenly surrounded by other kids who were eating the foods that made him sick? If we opted to homeschool, were we up to the task? And then there was the infernal “S” word—socialization. Would homeschooling keep Kellen so isolated that he’d never make friends or learn how to interact with his peers?
After extensive reading and research, plenty of soul-searching and numerous conversations with friends and family members who were parents and teachers, we finally arrived at a decision. By the time Kellen was 3, we had made the commitment to homeschooling—at least for the first few years of school while we waited to see whether he might outgrow his allergies. Our most meaningful measure of support came from my mom, who’d worked for many years as an elementary school educator. She knew firsthand how challenging it would be for any teacher to maintain the vigilance required to keep Kellen safe. She encouraged our endeavor and even got us off to a good start by suggesting curriculum and writing lesson plans for us to use.
At first our decision to homeschool made us feel a little isolated but we soon discovered we weren’t the only ones taking this route. According to Brian Ray, founder and president of the Salem, Oregon-based National Home Education Research Institute, some 2 million U.S. students are educated at home. The National Center for Education Statistics in Washington, D.C., indicated in a 2007 survey that almost 30 percent of homeschooling parents have children with special needs. And a small study of 87 families with food-allergic kids conducted in 2006 at the University of Maryland Hospital for Children determined that 10 percent of the parents interviewed had decided to homeschool their children specifically because of food allergies.
We have found ourselves in good company. In our local homeschool support group alone, we can count five families (out of about 100) with food-allergic children and several others for whom health concerns factored heavily into the decision to teach their children at home.
Knowing that there are other parents who have faced the same issues, weighed the same options and made the same decision has helped assuage the feelings of doubt and inadequacy that occasionally creep in.
A Learning Process
Homeschooling, as we have discovered, is challenging, sometimes exhausting and requires more time, energy and money than you might imagine. It almost always means that one parent has to make career and income sacrifices—or that both parents have flexible work arrangements—to accomplish the day-to-day instruction. Lessons must be planned, curriculum and other materials must be acquired, state education requirements must be met, and—perhaps most importantly—family members who are together under one roof almost all the time must develop relationship skills that help them get along.
But it is also an extraordinary gift for parents to play such a big role in providing the kind of individualized, one-on-one instruction that fosters a love of learning—and to simultaneously help create strong family bonds and instill important character qualities through life lessons. And homeschooling has provided a perfect platform for us to teach Kellen, who’s now 10 and entering fifth grade, about his allergies and how to handle them: As part of his education, he has helped plan and deliver a food-allergy presentation to his friends; learned to bake his favorite dairy-, egg- and gluten-free bread; and written about what it’s like to live with his allergies—which, by the way, he has not yet outgrown. (See “My Own Words.”)
A key element of our curriculum is a program created by homeschooling parents with the cooperation of a local school district. The program provides a way for homeschooled children from kindergarten through sixth grade to attend one full day a week of extracurricular classes (art, music, P.E., technology, Spanish and some science) together in a classroom setting at a local public school. No assessment or grading—simply enrichment on top of the heavy lifting handled by homeschooling parents who provide their own instruction in major subjects like reading, writing, mathematics, history and more science.
Students in the program learn alongside other homeschoolers of multiple ages under the direction of teachers who have come out of retirement to participate in the program. We’ve experienced amazing support and understanding from both the staff and other students with regard to Kellen’s food allergies, and he has never had a reaction while in attendance. (Of course, he takes his own lunch and we keep medicines on hand at the nurse’s office.) This one day each week gives us a bit of a break from the homeschooling routine. Kellen gets to experience a taste of what traditional school is like and I get a little time to regroup.
You might say (and we often do) that we have the best of all worlds. Our kids make friends quickly and converse easily with both their peers and people in other age groups. And our calendar is so packed with field trips, park days and homeschool co-ops that I can’t believe I was ever concerned about a lack of socialization.
The Right Fit
Our resolve regarding homeschooling was further strengthened earlier this year when my husband was laid off from his job and, in a twist of fate, I found myself serving as a substitute teacher at a large charter elementary school. The 30-student classrooms felt crowded and chaotic to me in contrast to teaching one-on-one at home. The pace was frenetic, seemingly a constant race against the clock to fit in every subject. At home, we have the luxury of completing one lesson at our own speed before moving on to the next.
I had a hard time picturing my kids thriving in that kind of environment. And I could imagine how a child’s food allergies might easily be forgotten in the fray.
Today, after seven years of homeschooling Kellen, we are glad we made the decision to do so. Indeed, for the last five years, we also have been homeschooling his brother Kerrick, 8 (who has no known food allergies), and we plan to homeschool their two smaller siblings: Kennah, 4 (who has sensitivities to bananas, avocados and nuts), and Keillor, 2 (no problem foods).
While homeschooling has been a good fit for our family, not every family with food-allergic children has the ability or the desire to make that same choice. For us, though, homeschooling has provided an opportunity for our children to be both healthy and happy while they learn. As a mom, I can’t ask for more than that.