So here in the UK, it's a big week. The French have a word for it: La rentrée. We just call it plain old 'back to school' time. This is a huge deal for me this year, as my youngest will be starting school full time in a few days. She's such a big girl and such a little girl all at once - a contradiction that every parent of a small person standing proudly (and a little bit unsure!) in their new school uniform, will be familiar with.
I know that many of you will have very different school systems and will be on a different time frame, but as the new school year is very much on my mind right now, I have decided to write about how to work with your child's school when your little one has eating issues. As a mum, I tend to see things from the parents' perspective, so I decided to rope it primary teacher and qualified SENCO (special educational needs co-ordinator) Sarah Brand, to share her thoughts on how to support your child as they start school.
Sarah teaches the Reception class (four and five year olds) so is very aware of the particular challenges of children getting used to the education system for the first time. For many, school meals and snacks in Reception can be the first communal eating experiences a child will have had outside the home.
Sarah had some great tips for parents worried about how their children with food issues will manage eating in a school setting:
- As well as speaking to them in person, make sure you write everything down for school staff, so that they have a written record of your child's individual challenges. A teacher may have 30 children in their class and having important information in writing not only makes it easier to act upon it without any misunderstandings, it also makes it easier to share with the staff team.
Never assume that medical assessments, records or reports have been passed on to school. If your child has seen a professional, ensure that a copy of any paperwork has been sent to your child's teacher. Sometimes, data protection legislation means that certain information will not be shared, so it's always worth double checking that any relevant information is shared.
Most schools will arrange a home visit or a school visit (and in some cases, both) so that parents can ask about what is expected in terms of eating. This is also an opportunity to share information with school, and ask any questions you may have. It's much better not to leave this until the beginning of term so you can prepare your child.
Sarah Brand talked to me about some of the things her school does to ensure that eating is as easy as it can be for all new starters. What she described sounds like extremely good practice and I can't say that I have seen the same level of awareness and concern in every school that I have visited. However, it shows what schools can do to make a difference to the little people in our lives, who find eating difficult.
Many parents will find it reassuring that schools do understand what it's like for picky eaters and do their best to support them. Once of the key concerns parents share with me is that only they know how to present food in a way that their child will accept - only they will know what their child will eat. This is really hard and is all part of the tricky process of separation that doesn't really stop until your child has left home and become an independent adult (and some would say beyond!).
Here are some examples of the great practice Sarah described:
- Staff eat with the children so they are able to contribute to a positive eating environment and relaxed atmosphere, as well as modelling a good relationship with food. How the adults around a child interact with food is far more powerful than anything we can say to children about eating.
The school chef (they have a chef!) feeds back to the class teacher if a child has been upset or anxious at lunch time so teachers can be aware of any emerging issues
There is a staggered lunch time so that the youngest children can eat in a calm environment - it's so important to understand that a school dining room or cafeteria can be absolutely chock full of sensory stimulation and for children who struggle with sensory processing (as many picky eaters do) this can be really hard. By setting up systems like staggered lunch times, schools can do a lot to mitigate this.
My advice to parents is see your child's school as a means to supporting your child rather than something to feel threatened by. If you can establish good communication from the start, you can work together as a team to support your child.