4 Tips to Help Make Life at School Easier If You Have Celiac Disease
Can you believe that the new school season is around the corner? Returning to school after the long summer is always a time of excitement. But when it comes to going back to school with a chronic health condition, this time of the year can also be quite challenging.
Although we are all affected differently by our ongoing health conditions, all chronic diseases require coordinated and continued support. Here are four tips I wish I had been given as a teenager to worry less about school.
1. Let teachers know when and why you aren’t fit to attend school.
When I was diagnosed with celiac disease at university, my early years at school had already been an emotional roller coaster that hadn’t let to the correct diagnosis. I remember that I spent loads of time at the doctor’s office to figure out what was wrong, or resting at home after days of vomiting and diarrhea. Nobody prefers to stay at home when they could meet their friends at school and participate in school activities, but there are days when our chronic diseases require us to focus on our body instead. On such days, it is important to have a coordinated support system.
For younger children it is crucial that parents help to establish such a system during the first weeks at school, focusing on necessary information without invading a child’s privacy. It is OK to keep explanations as short as possible. In the case of celiac disease, stressing the importance of a gluten-free environment, and explaining the reasons behind a potentially lower attendance rate, will help to make teachers understand the situation.
2. Don’t doubt yourself and remember to share your feelings.
It can be difficult to focus on homework, exams and friendships when you are feeling unwell. With a hidden disease, I have found it difficult to show teachers and friends how I really feel. As adults, many of us try to hide our symptoms and we pretend everything is fine, making it even more difficult to open up to somebody. Over the years, I have only found one way to solve this dilemma: communication.
A lot of times, we don’t know how other people feel or what they think, and we assume their lives are just fine while we are the only one struggling. Yet, this is not true.
Talking to a close friend, a teacher or nurse at school can help to regain perspective. Friends are able to cheer us up while teachers will be able to find solutions to help us study more effectively during times our bodies are strong enough, or how to find alternative dates when missing exams.
3. Safe food is the priority.
For celiacs, life is built around food. A lot of times, celiac disease is portrayed as a disease that can be managed easily. However, there is more to it than finding safe food that doesn’t include wheat, barley and rye.
Firstly, you have to know how to read labels correctly – including hidden ingredients that include gluten. Then you have to learn how to manage cross-contamination in the kitchen and find products in the supermarket that are produced in controlled environments. Once these areas are covered, you realize that you will have to learn how to prepare proper gluten-free meals in your own kitchen and how to eat safely in restaurants. For me, following the gluten-free diet has been a steep learning curve. But when it comes to maneuvering through school, gluten-free food preparation is taken to a whole new level.
To reduce the risk of contamination, it is always best to bring food to any occasion. For younger children, it is a good idea to discuss food options with kids first. Opening a lunch box with food that is prepared nicely and tastes delicious helps to overcome the fact that we can’t share the food everyone else is having. Personally, this has been a problem all my life so I have come to the conclusion that it’s worth spending some time on food preparation in the morning to be happy with my food choices during lunch.
4. Develop an illness care plan.
We all know life goes all wrong when we least expect it. For younger children it can be helpful to develop an illness plan with the school for those days and weeks when it’s time to focus on the body rather than school. I was lucky enough at university that my professors and degree program mangers cared about my health, so we were able to put mechanisms in place when I missed lectures. My professors would forward presentations to my email address or give me the opportunity to record seminars on the days I had to leave the room frequently to go to the bathroom. At school, teachers will be able to summarize lessons or explain what is required for exams more easily when such plans are in place. Planning what classmates are able to forward homework or who can help to understand exercises will also decrease hectic during the bad days when children should focus on recovery.
Life with a chronic disease can be unpredictable. By putting mechanisms in place that support us during the bad days, they will help to stay focused on education, and eventually our dreams, on the days we feel strong enough to pursue them. Happy new school year!
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