Category Archives: School

Brave New World

If you’re on any social media platform, be it Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, the chances are that your timeline will have been flooded this week with the ever popular first day photos like this one, on what an old friend humourously terms “National Stand in Front of your Door Day”. The start of every new school year always brings a list of tasks that need to be completed, which includes for us more than just name-labelling the new school uniform and buying huge amounts of school stationery that will potentially have disappeared by the end of the first week, but also making sure that we’ve dotted the “i”s and crossed every single “t” relating to the health needs of both children.

This year felt like even more of a challenge as M moves up into the same secondary school as his big sister and we find ourselves dealing with the reality of different teachers for every subject, a year group that’s bigger than the whole of his junior school and the need to educate the school in the world of M. The good news is that having reached the end of the first week, things have not gone horribly wrong and on the whole, it has all been a huge success. Every evening, M and I have looked through his timetable for the next day to discuss what he might need to do to make sure all his needs are being met as they need to be. I was as delighted as he was to discover that his educational needs have been noted on the tutor group register and so his teachers are aware that he needs extra support in relation to his Dyslexia and Dyspraxia. We still need to iron out the finer details of note-taking in class and how he prepares his homework for each lesson, but our unexpected find of yellow-tinted sunglasses whilst on our summer holiday have been an added bonus to helping him read the worksheets he’s given.

Disappointingly, though not altogether surprisingly, the level of awareness about his EGID and food restrictions has not been what we hoped it might be, but whilst my hopes were high, my expectations were truthfully quite low and we knew there would be work to be done in this area. He went to the Student Services with his medicines on the first day and by day 2 was confident enough to ask for a set of yellow cards, which gives him permission to leave class early to take them, jump to the front of the queue with 2 friends when it comes to lunchtime and go to the toilet whenever he needs to without having to wait and ask permission. Our biggest challenge was the one we feared it might be, that of the Food and Textiles classes that he will be taking this year. His cookery teacher was not aware of his dietary restrictions or just how important avoiding the cross-contamination risk is for M and so I’m waiting to talk to her after school on Friday to discuss just how we go forward with the lessons**. We are all keen for him to take these lessons and learn to cook, but Mike and I are very aware of the need to protect his fragile mental health and so will be working hard to make sure the cookery lessons don’t become a challenge too far for him.

As for G, my big girlie quietly and confidently started in Year 9 and is looking forward to the year ahead. She’s a little anxious already about making her GCSE choices later this year, but we have been spending time reassuring her that she won’t have to make those decisions on her own and that we will help and support her every step of the way, as will the school and her teachers. This year is a little different for G as they are now splitting a number of her classes into sets and her hard work over the last couple of years has stood her in good stead as she has been placed in the top 2 sets for almost all subjects.

It really is a step into a brave new world for the whole family and I can’t wait to see what the year ahead will bring for us all.

** So that conversation has happened today and I’m delighted to say was a really positive one. Mrs J has agreed that M can use ingredients and adapted recipes that are safe for him wherever possible and will work at his own station to help reduce the cross-contamination risks for him. She is as keen as we are to make the lessons a positive experience for him and will be regularly touching base with me to make sure we’re all getting it right.

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“This is my one small step, this is my walk on the moon”

I’m not quite sure how this happened. Two years ago marked the end of G’s Junior school career and now we find ourselves at the cusp of a new adventure for us all as M’s time at the Juniors similarly draws to an end. The past 4 years have been a true roller-coaster ride and the staff at our wonderful village school have been there for every step of the journey. From the moment we stepped through their doors, they have embraced the challenges of having M in the school and provided the whole family with the support we’ve needed to get the children through all those ups and downs relatively unscathed.

In some ways, the last 6 months have been the toughest of his school career, even more so than the NG-tube and broken leg we’ve dealt with in that time. He wasn’t able to attend his Year 6 camp because of poor health, but he found the joy in spending the day there getting muddy with his friends instead. We survived the stresses of SATS and celebrated in style last weekend when we found out just how well he did in passing them all. We’ve enjoyed the Year 6 production of The Wizard of Oz and are finally winding down to the Leavers’ Service at the end of the week.

This comment in his end of year report from his class teacher reflects the wonderful young man he is growing up to be:

He is an inspiration to his peers that in spite of his health issues, he participates fully in everything and does not use his illness as an excuse not to try….Thank you M, for being such a valuable member of the class this year. You contribute more than perhaps you realise!”

As we wave goodbye to the end of an incredible era, there will be more than one tear shed along the way, but we are preparing to embark on the next big adventure, building on the incredible foundation that has been put in place with great care, love and consideration over the last few years:

Bitter disappointment

Two years ago, M and I waved goodbye to G as she trekked off on the adventure that is Year 6 Camp and, as he had his NG-tube in place, we chatted about whether Year 6 camp was a possibility for him. I reassured him that Mike and I were both keen for him to go and would work hard with the school to ensure that his every need – medical, dietary or otherwise – was met as he needed, whether the feeding tube was still in place or not. Despite never having spent a night away from family, M wanted to go, to try out new activities and to challenge himself as opportunity offered.

One year ago, as I manoeuvred M’s wheelchair through the back gates of school and across the school field to his classroom, we breathed a sigh of relief that it was during Year 5 that he had spectacularly broken his left leg and not in the weeks leading up to the Year 6 camp. The slow reintroduction of foods following the removal of his feeding tube would not hold him back and once again I found myself reassuring him that, if needs be, I would bake a batch of M-friendly cakes or cookies to accompany him on the trip and that we would ensure that the camp kitchen could safely cater for whatever his food requirements were when he went. His week away at Over The Wall built his self-confidence as he realised that he could tackle anything he put his mind to and succeed.

For the last 2 years, M has been looking forward to this rite of passage, this week of school camp and practically counting down the days until it was finally his time to go. He has been in discussion with G about the different activities he might get to do and planning all that he would need to make the week the success he so desperately wanted it to be. I met with the school to talk over the arrangements for meal-times and sleep that would need to be in place and was confident that they would do everything in their power to make it a week to remember for him and all his class-mates.

And then 2 weeks ago, M had to make what has been, without a doubt, one of the hardest decisions in his life so far. The past 4 months of food challenges have taken their toll and when that was added to the stresses of SATS, we saw an unwelcome decline in his health that we weren’t sure could be overcome easily. Despite our best efforts and hard work since mid-May, M has decided that going away to Year 6 camp is not the right thing for him to do at the moment. To say that my boy is bitterly disappointed would be an understatement. For 2 years of longing and planning to come to nothing is heartbreaking for us all and has been a bitter pill to swallow. For M, life has just seemed incredibly unfair once again.

M is frustrated that he can’t go, but he has based his decisions on the health struggles he is currently facing and knows that ultimately it is the right choice for him. He has tried to remain cheerful in school and has been an active participant in the tasks set to his class as they have researched where they’re going and what they’ll be doing. Mike and I met with his teachers and arranged for Mike to take him to the camp today for a half-day*, so that he can join in an activity of his choice and not feel that he is missing out completely. What has made it even harder to bear is that he currently doesn’t have a place on this year’s OTW Health Challenges Camp and is instead on the waiting list, with his fingers tightly crossed that a place might become unexpectedly available.

I know that in the long-run, M will pick himself up and dust himself off and keep going, just as he always does, but it’s hard to comfort him when he’s railing against just how unfair life can be because, in all honesty, right now I agree with him and it’s hard to find the positive and that silver lining we so desperately need to cling to.

*I’m delighted to share that today’s morning has turned into a full day at camp with his friends. M enjoyed the mud assault course so much that he felt confident to stay on and try his hand at abseiling and anything else he could find the time to do.

NEAW 2017 – No man is an island

Sometimes, when you’re stuck in the midst of the relentless demands and emotional turmoil of a chronic illness, it’s difficult to see beyond your immediate reality and nearly impossible to believe that anyone else can even begin to understand how you’re feeling at that moment in time. It is no surprise that the one with the diagnosis often becomes self-centred and self-absorbed as their illness dictates every facet of their life and it can take a long time to really grasp that there are others out there who can empathise because of their own struggles and experiences. It’s all too easy for the focus of family, friends and the outside world to be focused fully on the individual and often the others affected by the diagnosis are left to struggle on their own by the wayside.

Over the years we have worked hard to try to give G the attention she deserves and it’s heartbreaking to realise that there are more times than I care to admit where we have absolutely failed to get that balance right. M’s ill-timed admissions over G’s birthday for 2 years in row were a bitter pill to swallow for us all and nothing could really make up for the disappointment of spending her 12th birthday too many miles apart. Encouraging G’s involvement with our local Young Carers group and the GOSH YPF as well as applying for her to be a part of the Over The Wall siblings camps have all been important steps in recognising the impact that M’s health challenges have had on her over the last 13 years and supporting her to find her own identity that is completely independent from him. It is an ongoing process for us and Mike and I will continue to strive everyday to support G as much as she needs, especially as the emotional roller-coaster of her teen years starts.

Just as our family is affected by M’s EGID diagnosis, so too is the community that surrounds him. I have mentioned so many times the amazing village school that both G and M have attended and everyday am grateful for their unfaltering support. Since M arrived at their gates nearly 4 years ago, they have willingly taken on the responsibility of dealing with a child with complex additional needs, not just medical but educational too. They have allowed both children, and us, to promote NEAW and their continued support with our fundraising efforts has been fantastic. I regularly read about the problems other parents with EGID children are facing in their schools around the UK and I know that we’re incredibly lucky to found this little gem. M has been able to attend school with a feeding tube, a broken leg and an extremely restricted diet and his attendance is remarkable for a child who has been through so much in so short a time. His Year 6 teacher has been fantastic at encouraging him this year when the prospect of SATS has caused him unbelievable anxiety and she has put up with a plethora of emails as I’ve tried to iron out the biggest wrinkles in a stress-filled few months. His classmates have similarly been an irrefutable source of encouragement and his move up to secondary school in September will be eased by their presence in his life.

We do not live in splendid isolation and every action we take has a ripple effect that can stretch out further than we can ever imagine, especially as a child. We are extremely lucky to have a community that works with us to help both children have the childhood that they are entitled to enjoy, one that is all too often marred by the difficult reality of chronic illness. As G and M grow older, my hope is that the realisation slowly dawns that whilst everyone’s life is unique, there are moments that teach us all lessons that can help us reach out to and empathise with others. Going to Over The Wall camps has shown both children that, despite those times when they feel isolated, there are others in the bigger world that do understand what they’re feeling, what they’re living and who can perhaps help them learn to survive even the darkest of emotions; and that when they have survived their own dark place, they can reach out to others who need to be brought back into the sun.

This year we have decided to continue our support of the amazing charity, Over The Wall and their camps. If you’re able to donate even a very small amount, please follow this link to my Virgin Money Giving Page where your donation will help more children living with chronic illness like G and M by giving them and their families a chance to enjoy some much-needed time away from it all.

#NEAW2017

May 8th: No matter what’s going on, there’s no escaping #EGID or leaving it at home, even for one day. For all those facing exams over the coming weeks, their EGID will be just one more challenge that they have to survive.

Today, this is for M – and his schoolmates and the other Year 6s across the country who are taking their SATs this week. We’re so proud of you: of the obstacles you’ve already overcome and your determination to succeed. Just remember, the results really don’t matter.

Thermos-inspired lunches

There are 2 things that are promising to totally transform the look of M’s packed lunches for school in 2017. The first is the reintroduction of parsnips to his diet as I’m finally able to cook a crisp-like addition for his lunchbox, which makes them seem a lot more like those of his friends after a long time of feeling so very different. 9270635_r_z002a_uc1440961The second was thanks to a somewhat last-minute Christmas present from good ol’ Father Christmas, which M is absolutely thrilled with and can’t wait to try out now that the new term has started – an individual thermos flask complete with a folding metal spoon tucked neatly into its top.

He’s been considering the matter at great length and has already come up with a long list of meals that he is keen to try out over the coming months. From pasta dishes including lasagne, to risotto and stir-fry, the options are endless, but today’s maiden meal was new-found favourite, parsnip and apple soup. This simple meal is beautifully easy to make, which is something I’m extremely grateful for now that I’m back to work full-time and every second saved cooking is a second gainfully employed somewhere else. Even better, the range of herbs and spices that I can safely add to M’s meals means that I can img_12781create enough subtle flavour differences to his soups to provide some much-needed variety and keep him engaged in the novelty of his first hot school lunches in a long time.

For the launch of our experimental hot meals at school, I made a spicy apple and parsnip soup and included a few of the Rude Health mini rice crackers that have become an integral part of many of M’s lunch and snack times. Whilst nothing can really compare to the unquestionable delight of dipping some crusty French bread into a bowl of rich, creamy soup, the portion of homemade, and safe, parsnip and apple soup accompanied by a handful of rice crackers was everything that M was longing for it to be and that meant it was a resounding success. Over the coming weeks I’m looking forward to experimenting a little more with texture and flavour and will be looking at replacing the apple with pear as well as changing the herbs added to each bowlful. Most of all, I’m hoping that M continues to be excited about the prospect of enjoying a mix of hot and cold meals during the next few months of the school year.

Looking ahead

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The start of a New Year is always an opportunity to reflect on the things that have passed, but more importantly, to look ahead to the adventures that are yet to come. We had a 2016 filled with as many highs and lows as we’ve faced in previous years and I don’t doubt that 2017 will be equally challenging in ways that are both startlingly similar and scarily new. I’m looking forward to a year that will investigate new possibilities for M’s diet and seek potential answers for what’s going on in his body as well as watching as G tries out new opportunities and starts thinking ahead to the school subjects she wants to study for GCSEs – a conversation that has filled our end-of-holidays walk this afternoon. We don’t know exactly what this year will bring, but it’s always good to look back on everything that has brought us to this place:

A Bento Box Journey

packed lunch

Packed lunches can easily become boring

Have you ever seen a picture of something on-line and be so impressed that you just wish you’d known about it sooner? 18 months ago, a friend and fellow FABED Mum started posting on FB photos of the most incredible Bento boxes that she had been putting together on a daily basis for her daughter’s school packed lunches. Contending with a limited diet as well as other sensory issues, this Mum wanted to create an appealing meal that would encourage her child to eat whilst at school and ensure that she didn’t feel like she was missing out because of her restrictions. On a regular basis, I see updated photos of her most recent creations and I love how she tailors the themes of the boxes to match events at school or in the outside world. I can’t imagine anything better for a child than opening this lunch box at school to discover what food has been included and the theme that has been picked for that day, and I’m sure she must be the envy of many of her friends. To be frank, I’m quite envious as I would love to have these bento boxes for my own lunches too!

 Are you wondering exactly what I mean? Well, take a look at these amazing boxes that have come from N’s kitchen over the last year:

 But why take the time to make your child a bento box meal like these? Without a doubt, a creative lunch may take a little bit of forward planning, but I’m certain that the benefits gained far outweigh the extra time and effort needed each day. Children with food allergies often have an unavoidable sense that they are missing out because they can’t enjoy the same crisps or chocolate or even sandwich fillings as their friends, but when their safe meal can suddenly become as appealing, if not more so, than that of their peers, that disappointment can start to disappear. 12662534_10153359363278176_2469231552454213776_nA child with sensory issues or a reluctance to taste new foods and textures may be tempted to take a bite when faced with a Minion banana or a star-shaped piece of cheese. Of course, there’s no guarantee that your hard work will reap immediate rewards, but as with most things, a continued effort may make all the difference in the long run.

 I just wish M and G were back at the stage of just starting school as I can well imagine how delighted they would have been to eat lunches as inventive as these, but I think we’ve probably passed that window of opportunity, although I am tempted to ask M if he’d like them during his final year of Junior school. As you can see from the pictures I’ve shared above, what helps make the boxes so special is the various pieces of paraphernalia that can be bought online from Bento box company, Eats Amazing. There is an astounding amount of bits and pieces available, from mini cutters to letters and accessories, all there to help turn the run of the mill into a work of art. I suggest that you give yourself plenty of time to discover all that the website has to offer and choose items from themes that will not only appeal, 10629611_10153108516363176_8999877504252818384_nbut can be used on more than one occasion. At first glance, this isn’t a cheap hobby, but by picking a few strategic pieces and taking inspiration from everything that’s available, I am sure that this would be a sound investment for anyone wanting to make their child’s lunchbox something really special. I suspect it would have even tempted my pickiest of eaters when she was a few years younger.

 I am so grateful to N and her family for sharing their bento box journey and showing how a little creativity can make a big difference to a child surviving food allergies and issues in the school environment.

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UnSATisfactory Pressure

Since the introduction of the National Curriculum to UK education in 1989 and the creation of the Standard Attainment Tests (SATs) in 1991, everybody has had an opinion about them and few are afraid to make that opinion known. For 25 years, controversy has raged about the value of these tests and who, in fact, the tests are really testing – is it the children or the schools? The one thing that is not in any doubt is that these tests put our children under a huge amount of pressure to perform well, even when their skills perhaps lie in a different direction and little allowance is made for those who find formal testing an unbearable strain.

Even though it’s been 2 years since G was in Year 6, I can well remember the stresses and strains that the prospect of the year-end SATs put on her. Small, but telling signs of the pressure she felt were revealed through changes in her behaviour at home and her already shaky confidence in her literacy ability took a further battering as she struggled to understand what the tests were demanding of her. Her homework steadily increased to ensure that all maths and literacy elements were taught, revised and well-established by the time the tests themselves actually happened and she spent Saturday mornings working with my 29Mum, a retired Year 6 teacher, to fine-tune those skills that were proving a little elusive to my school-loving child. Her hard work and focus throughout the year stood her in good stead and we were all proud of her year-end results, most of all because they rebuilt her belief in herself. Despite that previous experience, I knew that M’s start in Year 6 would herald a very different set of experiences and that’s absolutely proved to be the case.

M has been expressing his worries about the SATs since well before he even reached Year 6. He loves reading and his imagination and vocabulary are impressive, but the ongoing struggles with his handwriting and spelling due to his dyspraxia and dyslexia have really knocked his confidence when it comes to his literacy skills. This September saw the very real manifestation of the stress and pressure he’s put himself under and pieces of homework and classwork alike have left him in tears. I realised just how bad things had got when I received an email from his class teacher expressing her concern about his wobbles in the classroom. She knows him well, having been the school SENCo since he started at this school in Year 3 and also his Year 4 teacher when he had his NG-tube, so she’s fully aware of his additional educational needs and personality quirks and felt that his response was completely unlike him.

We have been working hard with M to develop the basic knowledge that is missing due to the delay in getting a diagnosis for his learning needs and are seeing a slow, but steady improvement. He attends weekly lessons at our local Dyslexia centre and his teacher there is working on his phonic and spelling knowledge in particular. We have agreed with school that he will only learn the spellings set by the Dyslexia centre as there is a greater need to ensure he has a good base on which to build his literacy skills, than worrying about the finer nuances of prefixes and suffixes for the time being. M uses the Nessy computer program, which was developed to teach reading, writing and spelling skills through a series of fun store_icon_nessyreading-01and interactive games and challenges. He has access to this both at home and at the Dyslexia centre and will soon be able to use it during some of his intervention group sessions at school. I have also just invested in the Nessy Fingers course, which will teach him to touch-type, a skill we are all agreed will be of huge benefit to him, especially when he moves on to secondary school next September. The ability to make notes on a laptop or tablet will ease some of the angst he already feels about the workload he will face in Year 7 and we are hoping to investigate some dictation programs that will also make his life just that little bit easier.

During Year 4, M’s occupational therapist came into school and taught a series of lessons focused on improving his handwriting and teaching him how to form his letters correctly. He now has the most beautiful joined up handwriting and, whilst it may take a lot of time and effort to do, he shows great determination to produce a well-written, well-structured and well-spelled piece of work. Even better, M recently received a certificate at school recognising his hard work with the diary entries he had been asked to write and congratulating him on some great ideas and marvellous handwriting. He was so incredibly proud of being awarded that certificate and his confidence and self-belief soared as a result. All too often over the last few years, M has been praised for his courage in dealing with his EGID diagnosis, NG-tube and food allergies, so it was great to see him receive recognition for the hard work he’s been putting in to improving his handwriting over the last 12 months.

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Truth be told, at the end of the day it really doesn’t matter what M’s SATs results are. They will not be a reflection of the bright, brave, cheerful boy that he is or of the huge strides he’s already made from an educational standpoint. They won’t show his breadth of knowledge on random topics such as the Illuminati, or expound his theories on anything Star Wars or his opinions about Brexit and the American Presidential race. They will never reveal the medical and health hurdles he’s overcome since the day he was born. Rather they will be a single snapshot of the ability of my 11 year-old to perform under certain pressures on a given day in May and will have no bearing on the journey he will eventually embark on for the rest of his life. They really are an unnecessary and unsatisfactory pressure that M and his friends could do without.

School Dinners

One of the roles that I’m most proud to have taken on in the past few years is that of Allergy Ambassador for the wonderful restaurant review website, Can I Eat There?, not least because we are a family who enjoys to eat out and embraces the challenge of finding somewhere safe for both M and G. We have to accept that there a some places that we just can’t visit as a family because of their allergies and whilst that causes the occasional moments of heartbreak, we’ve learned to avoid them as best we can. In similar fashion, we have had to adjust our thinking when it comes to the matter of school lunches for both children. G’s food allergies have been a part of our lives for long enough that we’ve always had to make special provision for her lunches at school and, whilst her first school was prepared to buy gluten- and dairy-free alternatives to cook for her on a daily basis, it became increasingly difficult once we made the decision to move away article-1052305-0283dca100000578-744_468x306from the independent sector to a school with external caterers. We did manage for a couple of years once M had started at school by making sure that G and her teachers knew to pick the safe option from the choices given, but once M went MEWS-free in 2011, school dinners became a thing of the past and packed lunches were the way forward.

I was recently talking to a good friend when the subject of school lunches came up in the conversation. If I’m honest, I can’t quite remember what led us to that topic, but I was really interested to hear about the steps her daughter’s school was taking to make more than adequate provision for those with dietary needs. The school in question, Ashcombe Primary in Weston-Super-Mare, runs their own kitchen and work hard not just to maintain their healthy school status, but also to use local produce and to minimise waste. They are also keen to be inclusive in their approach to cooked school lunches and ask parents to talk to their kitchen manager if there are specific dietary requirements or allergies, menuso that they can work together to provide a healthy and nutritious alternative menu customised for that child. I’m sure that they cannot be the only school to make such efforts, but they are certainly the first I’ve heard about from someone in the know and I was impressed by what she told me they offer.

However, when I saw this sample menu that she e-mailed across to me, I was even more impressed. This school kitchen has really taken on board the requirements of the 2014 changes to EU legislation concerning allergens and their monthly written menu reflects them. Every single item on the menu indicates which of the top 14 allergens are included in the dishes and as each day offers 4 alternatives, that is no mean feat and shows a level of dedication to getting this right that is admirable. The steps this school has already taken in making this effort would reassure me, as an allergy Mum, that the kitchen manager knows her stuff when it comes to catering for children with allergies and that is something that is, without a doubt, absolutely priceless. Of course, I don’t know how successful they are in preparing freefrom alternatives when needed and would be fascinated to discover if their encouraging start actually delivers in reality.

Do you know of a school that offers a similar service or have firsthand experience of one? I’d love to hear from you and be able to share and celebrate these individuals who are working hard to be inclusive and not exclusive when it comes to lunch-times at school.