Children may face eating challenges for various reasons. Children with extreme picky eating tend to experience higher levels of anxiety, around food and in general. Perhaps the most anxiety-provoking feeding challenge that parents face is life-threatening food allergies. Some children with extreme picky eating also struggle with food allergies, which can complicate the picture even further. Kristin Beltaos has made it her mission to help parents and children not just be safer and healthier, but thrive. We were intrigued and impressed with Kristin Beltaos’ work with parents, children, and schools (A Gift of Miles). She has graciously agreed to share some wisdom in our first guest blog post.
1. We are intrigued by your “Spotlight of Difference” TM. Can you tell us more?
First off Katja and Jenny, thank you for the opportunity to communicate with you and your followers.
Usually when you think of placing a spotlight on a child you think of something positive, i.e., accomplishing an awesome grade, playing a great sport game, writing a wonderful paper or doing well in a recital. These are all great ways to shine a positive spotlight on a child.
It’s fascinating how when we are confronted with a challenging situation, such as creating a safe environment for a food allergic child, our initial instinct is to determine how a child will adapt to our environment, rather than how the situation can be modified so that it’s safe for everyone. When we only address the individual child it will almost always create a Spotlight of Difference TM.
In our efforts to create safe environments for children with food allergies, parents and schools alike often shine an unnecessary Spotlight of Difference TM on these children that I believe is a catalyst for anxiety in food allergic children as well as food allergy teasing and bullying. We need to understand that safety does not always equal separateness and vice versa. I believe it’s our inability to view the picture creatively and holistically that causes us to go the easy route and shine an unnecessary Spotlight of Difference TM.
When I use this in my training, I have attendees actually work through real life examples on how to create more inclusiveness and diminish the Spotlight of Difference TM. It’s really stirring to see people get creative and excited about how to make life for a food allergic child better. I think so often we don’t like what is happening, like an allergy table, but we don’t take the time to think about how we can do it differently.
2. How does this relate not just to food allergies, but also children with extreme picky eating, and even beyond food, to other differences?
I think we shine a spotlight more often than we think. Let’s examine when treats are used for incentives, rewards and celebrations.
I always like to share about the first year when my youngest son was old enough to eat Halloween candy. My youngest son sat down to Twix®, Milky Way® and Hershey® candy bars while my child that has food allergies had in front of him Starburst®, DOTS® and Smarties®. You cannot look at these treats and equate them as being in the same category. You can’t “sex up” the non-chocolate treats, there’s just no comparison, unless of course you aren’t a chocolate fan.
My point is, you wouldn’t have your child’s three friends over and provide three of the children with delicious chocolate and one child with the other variety. How do we solve this dilemma? If you’re having a school-wide celebration, then that means finding a treat that is safe for all based upon all the dietary restrictions whether that be food allergy, food intolerance, diabetes, Celiac disease, autism, extreme picky eating, ADD, ADHD, etc. If you’re having a classroom celebration then that means finding a safe treat based upon the dietary restrictions within each classroom.
Spotlights don’t always have to be related to food. Each child may learn to read or understand math at a different pace. Stickers, colors, or Popsicle sticks may be used to track progress. Peers will know what level you are at in reading based upon the tracking system utilized. Children may be called out in the hall, to at a separate table or moved to a different classroom for assistance. If a child is learning at a slower pace, he/she may feel embarrassed. I don’t have the answer to this type of spotlight, but as you can see, often times we probably don’t even know that we’re shining a spotlight on a child.
While it may require additional planning, many schools have successfully found ways to socialize, celebrate, incentivize, reward, learn and craft without food or within restrictions surrounding food. It simply takes a little extra effort, and more importantly; just imagine the difference you make in a child’s life that is dealing with a challenge.
3. How can children with food allergies be kept safe while not made to feel different? How can schools do better for all children?
Let’s look at the peanut-free table for our discussion. A peanut-free table, or it can be referred to as an allergy table or an allergy aware table, is provided to create a safer environment for children with food allergies. The table is cleaned per set food allergy procedures. Peanut and nut related products are not eaten at this table. Children with food allergies may invite a friend or two to sit at this table as long as their lunches are free of nut products. Food allergy tables are essential in the early childhood period; however, once a child is in second grade we need to think more creatively on how to integrate or transition a food allergic child to the classroom lunch table. By second grade, a child with food allergies is more mature, able to understand how to care for him/herself and is growing in his/her independence. In addition, most peers are more mature and aware of the seriousness of food allergies.
Think about the spotlight that we put on children sitting at an allergy table. Often times these children aren’t typically friends with one another, rather they are placed together due to a common health condition. Many people will tell me that it’s okay because we allow children with a safe lunch to sit at the allergy table…but let’s be honest that doesn’t always work out. I’ve heard of children feeling like they have to lobby with their friends to come sit with them. Can you imagine having to lobby with your friends to sit with you? If a food allergic child is concerned about sitting alone at lunch, and has to lobby, how focused is that child on learning? This worry is a distraction, plus it builds anxiety in the child.
There are solutions to better integration, but it does require some creativity.
Solution #1 – The Tony Soprano
This solution has been used for many years, but I decided to utilize my Italian heritage and attach a name to it, The Tony Soprano.
Tony sat at the head of the table during his family meals, so a child with food allergies has an allergy-safe desk placed at the head of the classroom lunch table. This is a great option for a child transitioning from the allergy table to the classroom lunch table. It’s also the perfect setup for a child with multiple food allergies as it adds the added security of having their own surface; yet sit with their friends of choice rather than similar health condition.
Solution #2 – Corner of the Lunch Table
A lunchroom monitor can wipe the corner of the classroom lunch table and bench. Then the child can sit at a safe surface, and if extra protection is necessary, use Solution #3.
Solution #3 – The Cloth Napkin or Paper Towel
Once your child is a bit older, pack a paper towel or cloth napkin in your child’s lunch. Sitting at the lunch table is much like sitting at a picnic table at the park. Have your child lay the towel or napkin on the table and place their lunch items on the protected surface.
Solution #4 – Peanut Table
While I’m sure the non-allergic would be upset with this suggestion, a peanut table is a viable option. This solution is more difficult to enforce, as it requires the honor system of peanut eaters; however, we aren’t asking anything different from peanut eaters than what we ask of a food allergic child. The reason that this is more appealing is that eating peanut products is a choice, while having a food allergy isn’t a choice. This option is obviously the least popular.
We shine a Spotlight of DifferenceTM frequently, whether it’s the allergy lunch table, having treats in class in which an allergic child cannot partake of, curriculum projects that utilize allergens, seasonal projects, incentives and rewards with food, etc. All of these situations call us to be more creative, more compassionate about what we place upon these children that already have a lot on their minds.
Another example of how to diminish the Spotlight of DifferenceTM is if you have a curriculum project where allergens are used…take an extra 10 minutes and think about how you can make the project more inclusive. Challenge yourself to think of how to keep the integrity of the learning or socializing experience, but remove the food. If there isn’t a way to do this, instead of having an allergic child wear gloves and have to answer questions from his/her peers regarding why he/she is wearing gloves; offer a box of gloves to the classroom so that others can wear gloves if they so choose. This simple gesture takes the spotlight off of a child. (Katja and Jenny’s note: We love this suggestion. May help as well for children who don’t like messy hands, perhaps with sensory challenges or on the spectrum.)
4. Anything else you want to share with us?
In our society, invisible disabilities and challenges cause many to question the viability of the disability. When you look at food allergic children, it’s difficult to see the life threatening nature of their condition when they aren’t in the throws of an anaphylactic reaction. These individuals “look healthy” and unfortunately are regularly judged by others. People often have higher expectations of individuals with invisible disabilities and they are treated like they are faking their challenge or simply need to get their “act together” in order to live life under the “normal” expectations of others. I challenge us to rethink our approach and become more compassionate and thoughtful in the way we address people with food allergies or other invisible disabilities.
Tell us about your work at your business, A Gift of Miles.
I offer specialized consulting services to individuals, couples, and families who seek help managing food allergies, and other stresses in life such as reproductive challenges, employment transitions, balancing motherhood, managing life’s everyday chaos, aging parents and parental loss, etc.
With regard to food allergies, my mission is to support and advocate for individuals and families transitioning to a life of managing life-threatening food allergies and the stresses associated with adjusting to a new normal. Additionally, I’m a Licensed Trainer with the Minnesota Center for Professional Development and an Online Instructor for Eager to Learn, an e-learning program of Child Care Aware of Minnesota, teaching continuing education to early childhood and school-age providers and educators on how to keep food allergic children safe, happy and included.
Specific to families, I say that I pick up where your physician leaves off. After a food allergy diagnosis, specifically of a child’s, parents need to address all aspects of their lives. This includes, but certainly isn’t limited to life at home, childcare, school, work, play, leisure, shopping and travel. Many food allergy veteran families come to me for help navigating a new phase in their lives, i.e., transitioning to self-carrying or middle school, etc.
My work with early childcare providers and educators includes training, food policy development, the development of food allergy 504 Plans and Food Allergy Management Plans, and the mediation of disagreements between families and schools…and much, much more.
Website: A Gift of Miles
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