Hearing that a child has asthma can be scary for parents. But it gets even scarier when the children go to school. They spend five or more hours a day away from parents who can monitor their symptoms and know what to do to stop an asthma attack. For school nurses, the scariest time of all can be when they discover a student has asthma because the child is having an asthma attack at school.
Teaching children about asthma
Asthma is the most common chronic illness in children. So it’s no surprise asthma is a leading cause of missed school days. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that children ages 5 to 17 miss 10.5 million days of school because of asthma.
Being sure children -- and their parents -- understand their own illness is an important step to help them avoid asthma attacks. The American Lung Association has a program to do just that: “Open Airways for Schools,” aimed at kids ages 8 to 11. The program “teaches kids to manage their asthma day-to-day rather than crisis- to-crisis,” says Marla Taylor, a public health nurse who has taught the Open Airways program.
It’s also the goal of a program called “Enhancing Care for Children with Asthma.” A project ensuring that every child who participates gets a peak-flow meter to measure lung function and a spacer for use with their inhalers. Spacers are tube-like gadgets that attach to an inhaler and make it easier to breathe the medicine deeply into the lungs.
The Open Airways course uses trained asthma educators who volunteer to teach six lessons about asthma. The children are trained to:
Patrick Hattaway of the American Lung Association shares, “All these things allow them to take ownership of their asthma. It helps get them planning ahead and making sure they will be able to control their asthma attacks. Then, when they go to grandma’s house and she has cats, they know they better have their medicine with them and know how to use it.”
Teaching Open Airways in a group including kids with and without asthma helps them deal with peer pressure, too, says Taylor. Once all the students know what asthma is and how to control it, they can better understand the need to make allowances for a child with asthma.
“They can still spend the night at a friend’s house who has a pet,” she says. “They just need to take precautions. It’s no different than anyone else who might have another problem. If I have a broken leg, it means I can’t do a sleepover in your upstairs bedroom, but we can still do it in the living room.”
Getting parents involved
A key part of Open Airways is teaching parents about their children’s asthma. The kids get handouts to take home, and parents are invited into the school. Part of this involves asking parents to bring an Asthma Action Plan to school.
When the school invited parents to its Open Airways program, the parents of two boys were the only ones who came. But what a difference it made.
“They both got allergy testing. They got routine meds and could get specific about their asthma triggers. For the first time, they knew what it was like to breathe,” School nurse Leta Lofton says. “That was a major accomplishment through Open Airways.”
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