Navigating the school environment with celiac disease

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Find tips for communicating and collaborating with educators and school staff to create an inclusive and safe learning environment for your child with celiac disease.

Key points

  • Clear communication and collaboration with educators and school staff is important to managing your child's celiac disease diagnosis and adhering to the strict gluten-free diet.
  • Communication about celiac disease and the strict gluten-free diet with your child, your child's educator and school staff should start before school and continue throughout the school year.

Whether your child is starting their very first day of kindergarten or entering their final year of high school, planning and preparing for and communicating your child's celiac disease diagnosis, gluten-free diet and related needs can help kick-start a successful school year.

Here are some tips to help plan for a safe and healthy school year.

Before school starts

  • Have conversations with your child to confirm that they understand their diagnosis and need to maintain a strict gluten-free diet (e.g., they should know how to avoid gluten cross-contact and about the importance of proper hand hygiene).
  • Talk with your child about situations where gluten exposure may occur (e.g., lunchroom, on nutrition breaks, art classes), who to talk to when your child is not feeling well at school and the importance of asking questions to clarify if something is gluten-free and safe to eat or touch.
  • Discuss privacy and confidentiality rights with your child and communicate their preferences regarding who to tell about their diagnosis.
  • Role play scenarios with your child on how they can confidently explain their condition to others, such as their peers. It might help to introduce the MyHealth 3 Sentence Summary to your child and have them practice using it wit you before using it in real-life situations.
  • Consider having early conversations about bullying. Discuss signs of bullying, where bullying can happen and how to handle difficult situations with bullies (e.g., speaking to a trusted adult or school official). Some schools have policies to address bullying. It may be helpful to review this policy with your child.
  • Brainstorm lunch and snack ideas with your child for the school year and ask what grocery items they would like to pack a healthy lunch.

At the start of the school year

The key to maintaining a gluten-free diet at school is clear communication and working with everyone who plays a role in your child's life. Communication with teachers and school staff may be ongoing and may need to be revisited at the start of each school year. Here are some suggestions to communicate with your child's school:

  • Fill our any necessary medical information from your child's school. Provide accurate and up-to-date emergency contact information, including names, relationships and the best way to contact your child's emergency contacts (e.g., cell phone, work phone).
  • Provide your child's teacher(s) with a letter outlining their diagnosis of celiac disease, what this means and the importance of following a strict gluten-free diet and avoiding gluten cross-contact. You may want to highlight some key terminology, such as 'celiac disease', 'gluten', 'gluten-free diet' and 'cross-contact', in your letter. Celiac Canada has created a Celiac Disease Teacher's Info handout with this information along with a Teacher Letter, which can be printed and given to your child's teacher. You may also want to refer your child's teacher to AboutKidsHealth's Celiac disease learning hub and suggest they watch the Celiac Disease and Gluten-Free Diet modules.
  • If possible, follow up with an in-person meeting with your child's educator to further discuss your child's diagnosis, strategies to avoid gluten and prevent gluten cross-contact and answer any questions that your child's educator may have.

The following are some topics to discuss with your child's educator about how to create an inclusive environment:

Helpful resources

Share resources with teachers and other staff at school that explain what gluten is and where it is found in the food supply:

Also highlight specific school supplies and activities that contain gluten and may pose a risk if ingested. Offer gluten-free and safe alternatives to gluten-containing school supplies:

  • Playdough → Gluten-free playdough
  • Paper mâché made from wheat flour → Paper mâché made from corn starch or rice flour
  • Pasta art → Use gluten-free options such as natural, unprocessed dry corn, quinoa, beans or lentils, rice or gluten-free pasta
  • Sensory table → Use non-food items such as pipe cleaners, pom-poms or shaving cream

How to minimize gluten cross-contact

  • Clean all surfaces in classrooms with school-approved cleaning solution.
  • Encourage proper hand hygiene before and after eating.
    • Although hand sanitizers are great for protecting against colds and viruses, hand sanitizers do not remove gluten and should not replace proper hand washing.
  • Students should not share food or touch other students' lunches.

What to do in case of gluten exposure

Discuss an action plan for accidental gluten exposure or when your child feels sick at school. You may want to share the following with your child's educator:

  • Your child's common signs and symptoms of gluten exposure.
  • The accommodations your child may need in case of gluten exposure, such as unrestricted access to the bathroom.
  • How you would like to be contacted in the case of gluten exposure.

Making sure gluten-free food is available

  • Advocate to be informed about special school events, such as pizza days and field trips, well ahead of the scheduled event. This will allow your child and family to have time to plan and prepare to attend these events with gluten-free options if possible.
  • Ask your child's teacher(s) if you can leave them with pre-packaged, shelf-stable gluten-free options in case of a spontaneous food event, such as a classmate's birthday. Make sure the food items are labelled with your child's name.
  • If your child is provided a snack at a before-/after-school program, communicate their gluten-free diet to staff and develop a plan to ensure your child's safety.

During the school year

  • Engage with your child in various activities and conversation to help them learn how to self-advocate and manage their diagnosis of celiac disease in and outside of the learning environment:
    • Teach your child how to recognize gluten-free logos, claims and ingredients.
    • Involve them in planning and preparing school lunches and snacks.
    • Prepare some gluten-free treats such as cupcakes or cookies to freeze for the school year and have available when special events occur at school.
    • Discuss tricky situations or challenges your child is currently experiencing and how you can both use problem solving to find a solution together.
    • Visit How to help your child communicate about celiac disease for more tips and information on self-advocacy.
  • Have check-ins with your child's teacher(s) to see what is working well and what can be improved. Discuss strategies with your child's teacher(s) to overcome potential classroom challenges.
  • Recognize signs and symptoms of when your child may be struggling with their diagnosis:
    • Change in regular behaviour
    • Poor academic performance or a change in academic performance
    • Difficulty with concentration or attention
    • Withdrawing from other people
    • Experiencing mood swings, severe anxiety, fear or worry
    • Losing interest in hobbies or pleasurable activities
    • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
    • Intentional consumption of gluten and presence of physical symptoms

If your child seems to be struggling, seek out mental health help from your school, medical or celiac team.

Planning ahead and communicating your child's needs can help you prepare for a new school year. Collaborating with your child's teachers and school staff can also help to create a positive and inclusive learning environment that allows your child to safely adhere to their gluten-free diet.

Last updated: July 14th 2023