6 Ways You Can Help Gluten-Free Kids Cope With School

Preschool and elementary school present some (surmountable) challenges

Young children in preschool, kindergarten and the first few years of elementary school face particular challenges in the classroom if they have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Even if you pack lunches for your children to keep them gluten-free, they'll still need to deal with messy gluten-eating classmates, frequent gluten-y classroom snacks, multiple birthday celebrations featuring gluten cake or cookies, and craft supplies that can contain gluten.

To help your child cope and ensure a safe environment, you'll need to work closely with the teachers and make sure they understand. You'll also need to teach your young children to keep safe in the midst of their gluten-eating peers.

Here's a rundown of six specific situations you'll need to monitor and manage for a young celiac/gluten intolerant child in school.


Get Your Child a Safe Cafeteria Lunch

Kids eating lunch in cafeteria

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If you've perused a school cafeteria menu lately, it's probably struck you how much gluten the lunches include. Despite pledges to combat childhood obesity by providing healthier food choices, cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, grilled cheese sandwiches, and pizza dominate the menu.

In this gluten-filled atmosphere, it might be possible to get a gluten-free meal for your child. However, you'll need to work very closely with the school dietitian and the cafeteria staff to make certain ingredient issues and cross-contamination risks are addressed.

Some parents fight hard and get some accommodation, especially if they have a 504 plan (a plan to address disabilities) in place to ensure their child is protected and accommodated in school.

However, cafeteria cross-contamination is always a huge danger even if the staff is committed to providing a gluten-free lunch. You'll have to stay diligent to keep your child safe ... but the reward can be a happy child who gets to buy lunch, just like her friends.


Warn Against Sharing Lunches

young children eating lunch at school

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Some young children like to share parts of their lunches with their friends, and parents often accommodate this by packing enough extra cookies or crackers to go around.

But this carries obvious danger for a child with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity — rarely will you find those shared snacks are gluten-free. And even if the food itself would pass as gluten-free (carrot sticks or corn chips, for example), it almost certainly wasn't prepared and packed with cross-contamination dangers in mind.

Unfortunately, you need to teach your young children that they cannot share snacks with their friends at school. If they get bad symptoms when they eat gluten, remind them of that, but make sure to temper that harsh message with some yummy gluten-free snacks in their own lunches, every day.

Pack some extra snacks for your children's friends, too, as long as they understand they can't sample any of their friends' snacks (this may work better with slightly older children). You may even find that some of their friends prefer the gluten-free treats to their own.


Battle Those Ubiquitous Gluten Crumbs

boy eating doughnut

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Little children sometimes seem like crumb factories, traveling everywhere with a handful of cookies or pretzels to keep them company. Crumbs often cover their school desks, too, especially in classrooms where snacks are served regularly.

As adults, we know to keep a safe distance and to wash our hands frequently. You'll need to teach your child the same thing when it comes to being around gluten-eating friends.

Hand sanitizers won't help, since they don't remove the gluten — they just kill bacteria. Make sure your child's teacher understands this point.

Ideally, your child's classroom should be completely free of gluten foods, but you'll likely have trouble getting that result, especially if the school normally has the children snack at their desks. If your child is particularly sensitive to gluten, this may be another issue to address with school officials in a 504 plan.


Avoid Play-Doh Like the Plague

shot of Child's hand playing with play-doh

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Classrooms for very young children — preschool through early elementary school — often feature copious amounts of Play-Doh or reusable modeling clay.

Sadly, brand-name Play-Doh contains gluten. And even though your children probably won't eat the clay (although some children do), they may still inadvertently consume it if they get it on her hands and under their fingernails.

Ideally, your children's classroom shouldn't include any gluten-based modeling clay, since it's not reasonable to expect them to use something different than the other children. Fortunately, gluten-free Play-Doh alternatives exist.

Ask your school to sub a gluten-free modeling clay for PlayDoh. If school officials balk, some parents opt to purchase enough for the classroom themselves.

You also need to watch out for gluten in certain art supplies. Cream-based face paint, for example, often contains gluten, and many brands of finger paints aren't safe for the gluten-sensitive (check out the craft supplies article for safe brands).


Redesign School Projects That Use Flour

child with paste on her hand

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Rarely does a school year go by that doesn't include some classroom project involving flour, such as making paper maché creatures (most recipes use wheat flour) and pies (ditto). The children and teachers may also perform science experiments using flour.

Even though they're not eating the flour-based products of these projects, your celiac children will get sick from the flour in the air while the project proceeds.

You have two choices: work with the teacher to substitute gluten-free materials for these projects, or pull your child from school the day something involving flour is scheduled to take place (yes, airborne flour can make your child sick).

Obviously, it's better to help the teacher make the project safe for everyone, including your child. To do this, you'll need to know about the projects in advance, so keep the lines of communication open. You'll also need to find gluten-free alternatives.

You can make gluten-free paper maché by mixing water with safe glue (Elmer's is gluten-free), and you can substitute gluten-free flour in recipes and projects that involve regular flour.


Source Gluten-Free Classroom Treats

preschool child eating cookie

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Elementary school classrooms these days seem to feature a birthday party almost every week, and of course, those parties include gluten-y cupcakes or other snacks.

You can't count on the teacher to warn you before a parent appears with treats (the teacher often has no warning, either). Since there are few things sadder than your children in tears because everyone got a delicious cupcake except for them, you'll need to prepare for these constant parties in advance.

Ask the teacher if you can place some frozen cupcakes or brownies in the school's freezer. If that's possible, make up a large batch to freeze. Then, the teacher simply can grab a cupcake (hopefully giving it time to defrost) anytime there's a party.

If you can't use the freezer, fill a box with your child's favorite gluten-free snacks and deliver it to the teacher. Either way, check in periodically to see if you need to replenish the supply.

By Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson is a medical journalist and an expert in celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and the gluten-free diet.