Parenting during the pre-school years can be their challenge, but adding Celiac or gluten free into the mix complicates things. Add to that the fundamental misunderstandings or confusion regarding gluten and how to be gluten free and it is a recipe for frustration on every side.
Let the school know your child needs to be gluten free due to a medical concern. Include basic information on gluten, where they can find it in a preschool environment, and the reactions your child will have when exposed. Include a plan for steps the school needs to take after they are exposed.
Most people who run daycares or preschools do so because they love kids and want to see the best for them. Going into these discussions with that in mind is essential. But it is also important to remain firm in what they need to do.
How To Get Preschool To Do Gluten Free
Look up your local laws for preschools and disabilities or dietary accommodations. These laws will change country to country and state to state.
Generally, a school should not kick out a child because they have Celiac Disease or are gluten free. However, if the school environment has fundamental parts of their curriculum that involve gluten or wheat, the parents may want to consider whether the school is the right place for their child.
If you can, offer to send in lunch for your child. Some schools get funding based on nutritional standards and cannot allow this, but most will be happy to make sure your child gets only the food you send for them. Having this control over what they are ingesting is a significant part of what you need to do to make preschool a safe place.
Many things contain gluten in the preschool or daycare environment. Besides food, the most significant places you will find gluten are playdough and paper mache. While neither are ingested intentionally, playdough can get under fingernails and make its way into the child’s food. For more information on paper mache, see this article that goes into detail.
It would be best to consider how you would approach the preschool about changing to a gluten free diet or discussing starting a child who needs a strict gluten free diet and environment. Ask questions about what they use for crafts if they have kids participate in cooking and nearby businesses that might pose an issue.
If your child has symptoms of being exposed to gluten, advise the school before dropping your child off again. Try not to place blame but instead approach it in a problem-solving manner.
What Are The Laws About Gluten Free For Preschool
For those in the United States, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) governs what businesses and organizations must do to make their services available to everyone. You can find their entire page on child care by going to this link. The below-listed information is sourced from that link as well.
The ADA states that preschools and daycares may not discriminate against students, grown-ups, or other people due to a disability. They must allow equal opportunity to participate in programs and services. Below are some quotes from the ADA website (in bold) that may help you. I have included my interpretation of them below each section. I am not a lawyer, and if you need legal advice, please seek the guidance of someone who understands your local laws and can guide you.
Centers cannot exclude children with disabilities from their programs unless their presence would pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others or require a fundamental alteration of the program.
For kids with Celiac Disease, wheat allergy, or other autoimmune conditions, do not pose any threat to the safety of other children. At the most, it is an inconvenience. If your child has outbursts or other behavioral problems that happen due to gluten reaction, make sure to include it on the plan with the school and that it will not be an issue if the school maintains your child’s gluten free diet.
I once looked into a Waldorf school for my oldest with a severe reaction to gluten. Waldorf schools pride themselves on having the children participate in many parts of school life, including food preparation. They even have the kids grind their flour.
When I discovered this, I knew that I could never send my child to this school. Asking them to change this would have been a “fundamental alteration” of the program. They did state their interest in establishing a dedicated gluten free class and free of other allergens. So they may offer something in your area.
But when I looked at that school, I knew that it would not be a good fit for my child.
Centers have to make reasonable modifications to their policies and practices to integrate children, parents, and guardians with disabilities into their programs unless doing so would constitute a fundamental alteration.
This one can get tricky. What are “reasonable modifications,” and what is a “fundamental alteration”? The best way I can explain it would be in examples.
If the school does not allow you to bring food in for your child, a “reasonable modification” would be to prepare their food on gluten free surfaces and provide them with safe food to consume or make an exception and allow you to send food for your child.
Say the school is in a building with other businesses and the entire building shares a shared duct system, and there is a bakery next door. It is a “fundamental alteration” to ask them to move locations or change their duct system. However, a “reasonable modification” may be to request them to use filters on their side of the ducts.
There are many other examples of this. But always consider whether what you are asking is something reasonable or unreasonable.
Centers must provide appropriate auxiliary aids and services needed for effective communication with children or adults with disabilities, when doing so would not constitute an undue burden.
The above recommendation means to me (as a mom of a child diagnosed with a communication disorder) that kids who are nonverbal, deaf, and others who have other communication disorders need to have alternatives provided by the school. Accommodations could be interpreters, but devices to help them communicate or even things like visual schedules are more common.
Some children with disabilities need to remain gluten free because it helps their concentration, behavior, or other factors.
Centers must generally make their facilities accessible to persons with disabilities. Existing facilities are subject to the readily achievable standard for barrier removal, while newly constructed facilities and any altered portions of existing facilities must be fully accessible.
The above refers to physically making the facility accessible. Making their facility accessible to a person with a wheat allergy or Celiac Disease could mean they need to replace cutting boards used for all food and get one designated gluten free. Dedicated to preparing food for a gluten free child, which is not an unreasonable request.
Child care centers cannot just assume that a child’s disabilities are too severe for the child to be integrated successfully into the center’s child care program. The center must make an individualized assessment about whether it can meet the particular needs of the child without fundamentally altering its program. In making this assessment, the caregiver must not react to unfounded preconceptions or stereotypes about what children with disabilities can or cannot do, or how much assistance they may require. Instead, the caregiver should talk to the parents or guardians and any other professionals (such as educators or health care professionals) who work with the child in other contexts. Providers are often surprised at how simple it is to include children with disabilities in their mainstream programs.
So you should expect to meet with a teacher or school administrator to go over a plan of how they can make the environment a safe place for your child. Make sure you prepare for the meeting and come armed with ideas of what they need to do.
I wrote an article on where gluten in classrooms would be helpful to look over in thinking about changes. You can check that article out here to help you prepare for that meeting.
Title III does not require providers to take children with disabilities out of turn.
The above is about schools that have a waitlist. They don’t need to open it up to students with disabilities first, but they shouldn’t push them further down the list.
If you are on a waitlist, do not mention any disabilities before admittance unless it is on the application. In my own experience, people are reluctant to do anything out of the ordinary, and it is hard to prove they passed you over specifically due to the disability.
Most children will need individualized attention occasionally. If a child who needs one-to-one attention due to a disability can be integrated without fundamentally altering a child care program, the child cannot be excluded solely because the child needs one-to-one care.
If the program you are looking at is for group care, but your child will need one on one care from time to time, such as for supervision during lunch to be sure your child doesn’t share food with others, this is allowable under the ADA, and exclusion is not allowed.
If the service is required by the ADA, you cannot impose a surcharge for it. It is only if you go beyond what is required by law that you can charge for those services. For instance, if a child requires complicated medical procedures that can only be done by licensed medical personnel, and the center does not normally have such personnel on staff, the center would not be required to provide the medical services under the ADA. If the center chooses to go beyond its legal obligation and provide the services, it may charge the parents or guardians accordingly. On the other hand, if a center is asked to do simple procedures that are required by the ADA — such as finger-prick blood glucose tests for children with diabetes (see question 20) — it cannot charge the parents extra for those services. To help offset the costs of actions or services that are required by the ADA, including but not limited to architectural barrier removal, providing sign language interpreters, or purchasing adaptive equipment, some tax credits and deductions may be available
The above is about if a daycare, preschool, or childcare center can charge parents for required accommodations. In general, there should be no services for a child with Celiac Disease, wheat allergy, or other conditions requiring specifically gluten free where additional charges occur.
They should not charge you extra for gluten free food (especially if they are not allowing you to provide your own) and should not charge you extra for materials needed for arts and crafts such as gluten free playdough to replace regular playdough.
To make things go well with the school I have offered to provide these many times, some of the classrooms have taken me up on my offer.
Children cannot be excluded on the sole basis that they have been identified as having severe allergies to bee stings or certain foods. A center needs to be prepared to take appropriate steps in the event of an allergic reaction, such as administering a medicine called “epinephrine” that will be provided in advance by the child’s parents or guardians.
This one is important and applies directly. If denied admittance, explicitly due to a food allergy (or Celiac Disease), please send them this statement from the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).
Can A School Kick Out A Kid Because They Are Gluten Free?
See the above regarding laws from the ADA. Daycare centers and preschools must make reasonable accommodations that don’t fundamentally change the program to allow children with disabilities to participate. Source
If your childcare provider has removed your child from their program and stated the reason was due to their food allergy, intolerance, or diagnosed condition, I would first send them the link for the ADA childcare questions.
If they are still uncooperative, you can contact a lawyer or report them to a local governing body.
Gluten Free Food For Preschool
Most preschools will welcome parents who want to send their food, but funding in the United States, tied to the USDA, and feeding children in the school. So some will not allow outside food.
If your school does not allow outside food, they must accommodate by providing food prepared safely and free of allergen. Many of these centers will make an exception to allow food to be brought in for a specific child when making the accommodations are as strict as cooking for a gluten free child.
If you would like to send along some instructions on cooking gluten free, I wrote this article with Celiac Disease or very severe gluten intolerance in mind.
If the school provides food, but you are sending in safe food, they will usually offer a menu ahead of time. It can be nice to follow that to match the foods others will have. But for the most part, kids love finger foods and things that we as parents mostly see as the easy stuff.
Some ideas that are both easy and fun:
Savory Muffins (these have an egg baked inside)
What Does Preschool Use That Has Gluten?
I wrote an article about where gluten is in the classroom. In general, you can read about it in more detail.
These are the main areas of concern for a preschool or daycare class.
Playdough This is made with wheat flour, and most of the commercially available brands also use wheat flour. Not designed to be consumed, but as anyone with kids can tell you, neither are most things they put in their mouths when they are young.
It can get under fingernails and end up getting ingested that way as well.
Some commercially available PlayDough substitutes work well. The one we have had the most success with is Soy-Yer Dough (now known as Yer-Dough). Here is a link to their site (no longer on Amazon).
Paper Mache Another common and high-risk item is paper mache. Besides the airborne flour getting on everything, those with skin reactions, especially kids with wheat allergies, will not want to use this. Frequently make masks by placing them on the face to dry.
While it is a fun activity, there are some straightforward ways to make it gluten free friendly. I wrote an article on it for some ideas.
Sensory Bins The last one I’ll go into here. Schools frequently use pasta in sensory bins. This practice is not safe, and there are so many other things that are gluten free available, such as beans, rice, sand, kinetic sand, or beads.
Also, be cautious of anything made with wheat in the sensory bins, such as Cloud Dough. This one works well with gluten free flour as an alternative.
What Else Does A Gluten Free Kid In Preschool Need?
The easiest thing for everyone is to allow a gluten free child to bring their food. There are many ways it could get contaminated while making it, which takes so much risk out.
There are many places that gluten exists in a preschool classroom. The list above is just a jumping-off point.
What a Celiac (or otherwise gluten free) child needs is an understanding and compassionate teaching staff. If they act like a considerable inconvenience brought along kicking and screaming, they will make mistakes because it is not essential to them.
If it is not crucial to the teaching staff, they will forget about specific tasks to keep the child safe. That isn’t to say that they will do it on purpose. There are so many things that they need to deal with daily, and it may slip through the cracks.
So if you are looking for a preschool, finding a sympathetic teacher can go a long way.
How To Approach Preschool About Gluten Free?
Approaching a preschool about dietary needs can be tricky. You don’t want to overwhelm them, and you don’t want them to find a different reason not to accept your child either.
I try to approach it from a place of sympathy and with an attitude of helpfulness.
Remember that most of these teachers are here because they love teaching kids. They honestly do want what is best for your child. Remembering this can go a long way when speaking with the staff.
Have important things to you written out and what you need them to do for your child. Suppose you can offer to provide some art supplies, such as playdough, that need replacing. After all, if the entire class were using gluten free playdough, it would make it safer for your child without singling them out!
Offer to be their fountain of knowledge when it comes to gluten free. Have them contact you with any questions. This practice will make for a good relationship for you both.
Please don’t assume that they know anything about gluten. Most people are surprised to find that it only comes from wheat, rye, and barley.
Be kind and understanding towards them, but don’t budge on what you need them to do. Having your child sit out an activity isn’t an accommodation. You know what is essential and how they need to accommodate.
Washing hands is important – they cannot only use sanitizer. Gluten is not a germ and will not dissipate from sanitizer—Wash gluten off the hands.
Have a plan ready for what to do when exposure happens to gluten. Let the school know the signs and symptoms, the timeline to expect it, and what steps they can take. One of these things should include informing you immediately.
How To Explain How Important Gluten Free Is For A Silent Celiac Child
So-called “Silent Celiac,” or the cases where a child does not show signs or symptoms from being exposed to gluten, can be very challenging in a childcare scenario.
Most Celiac children do not react until hours or days later, and while that can be difficult enough to explain, the cases where there are no outward signs are even more difficult.
These children need to be even more careful than others because they never know when exposed. Someone who has symptoms may notice that a product doesn’t agree with them and avoid it, but a silent Celiac wouldn’t find out until you receive test results.
Explaining this to a childcare provider can be tricky. It is essential to let them know all the most severe risks of constant gluten exposure of that child, so they know the risks. Please don’t assume they know what happens when Celiacs do not stick to a gluten free diet. Scare them a little.
Let them know that it is even more important with a child that does not show symptoms to be extremely strict on their gluten free diet. Tell them that the lack of outward signs does not mean there is no damage on the inside happening.
How To Deal With A Kid That Got Gluten In Preschool
Two things for kids exposed to gluten in their preschool classroom need to be done: helping the kid and contacting the school.
As the parent, if you notice your child displaying symptoms of a gluten exposure or reported getting gluten in preschool (or as happened to me once, my child was offered a cookie on our way out the door), you need to first deal with the child.
Unfortunately, there is not much to be done. Encourage water and other fluids (breastmilk, if you are breastfeeding, is probably the best thing possible) and rest. Some kids get past it in a few days, and others will have symptoms for weeks.
Don’t avoid contacting the school. They need to be kept aware of what is going on and help get through it. Instruct them to allow rest and lots of fluids to help support the child through this.
Have a very frank discussion with them. What happened, how the staff can fix it, and the consequences to the health of your child. It is their responsibility to keep your child safe, and one of the things your child needs to be kept secure is a gluten free environment.
If they have multiple sets of toys or crafts, both gluten and gluten free, you may need to discuss how to mark it more clearly, train staff, or switch out for 100% gluten free craft.
If it happened due to the child helping themselves to a friend’s lunch, there might need to be extra supervision at the table.
You can, and should, talk to your child as well. Even very young children can start to understand gluten. Or be taught to ask if it is gluten free. And the way preschoolers say “gluten” is the cutest (and saddest) thing!