Asthma Education Vital In America’s Schools

Vol. 20 •Issue 18 • Page 15
Asthma Education Vital In America’s Schools

People with asthma or asthma-like symptoms have sometimes experienced a feeling of terror when struggling to take a normal breath because of a restrictive airway. Adults can usually articulate that feeling succinctly. Others cannot.

The patient population most vulnerable and directly affected by asthma includes children who often do not understand what is happening to them or why. Their dependency on others to assist them in the prevention of an asthma attack or to minimize its effects places an awesome responsibility on adults, especially educators and health care workers.

Education is one key that can easily determine the level of impact asthma will have and the degree of suffering a child will face as a result of an asthma attack. The difference between life and death can easily depend on the efforts of parents and all others who are part of the child’s environment. They are helped increasingly by asthma educators and by professional associations dedicated to controlling asthma.

Although asthma cannot be cured, it most certainly can be controlled, and well it should be. In a classroom of 30 children, three will likely have some degree of asthma. Results of a survey taken in 2002 indicated 12.2 percent of children (8.9 million) had been told asthma was likely in their lives. Roughly 8.3 percent (6.1 million) had asthma and 5.8 percent (4.2 million) had experienced an asthma attack in the past 12 months.

These are all youngsters who are already or will eventually be a part of the nation’s school systems. These numbers indicate there is a need for schools to provide effective asthma education and for those children diagnosed with asthma to have an individual action plan available and accessible in the school.

Strategies for Success

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified six strategies that are available to schools and districts considering asthma programs for their student body. The six major sections in the plan call for:

1. Providing appropriate school health and mental health services for students with asthma,

2. Providing asthma education and awareness programs for students and school staff,

3. Providing a safe and healthy school environment to reduce asthma triggers,

4. Providing safe, enjoyable physical education and activity opportunities for students with asthma,

5. Coordinating school, family, and community efforts to better manage asthma symptoms and reduce school absences among students with asthma, and

6. Establishing management and support systems for asthma-friendly schools.

Organization Programs Abound

The American Lung Association (ALA) has created a program known as the Asthmatic Friendly Schools Initiative (AFSI) as part of an effort to assist local communities in organizing and planning comprehensive asthma management programs within their local school systems.

The ALA offers an Asthma-Friendly Schools Toolkit which has six major sections designed to support the individual needs of a particular school. Information is designed to maximize school health services, build asthma education awareness, craft a healthy school environment and organize physical activities.

Individual schools can choose the components of each section that best suit their needs. The tool kit helps school systems use a customized approach when formulating and implementing a comprehensive asthma management plan. The Asthma-Friendly Schools Toolkit provides samples that can be downloaded in their entirety in a computer system and applied to the individual culture found in each school setting.

Asthma education in schools should include a definition, information on signs and symptoms of asthma, corresponding triggers and treatments. It should likewise include training in the correct use of inhalers and open doors for communication with asthma networks. Such programs are finally being recognized for their value in treating a disease that affects approximately 5 million children under the age of 18.

The Open Airways for School Programs, developed by the ALA, was designed to decrease the total number of asthmatic attacks and their severity and teach children how to recognize the symptoms of asthma so early intervention can be started.

The Asthma Awareness Program was developed for children in grades K-6 by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) to provide a basic understanding of asthma, inform students of appropriate actions to assist people with asthma and provide resources to be shared with parents and family members.

Computers Chime In

One especially helpful aide is the Asthma Incident Reporter (AIR). This is a case management database compiled from the school health section of the asthma tool kit. It is free to all schools having access with an encryption key and a password for security purposes when downloading the data base. By tracking students with asthma, researchers can access reliable information that can be used in evaluating the effectiveness of asthma programs and the quality of life of the students.

Children with asthma need to be considered a normal part of any school environment, and educators must rely on communication as a critical factor to ensure a child is receiving the proper asthma management in the school.

There are many adults who believe they cannot rely on children to take their own medications in schools and argue that medications should be locked in the nurse’s office or an administrator’s office.

Many asthma organizations feel differently and have come out in favor of allowing children to carry their own inhalers, especially those designed specifically for rescue purposes. They argue that children are being taught to understand the basic concepts of their disease and being taught to use their inhaler as early as possible after the first symptoms of an asthmatic episode appear so they should have access to them. They are told from an early age there should be no delay.

Forcing a youngster or a teacher to leave a classroom to track down and retrieve an inhaler locked away in an office is a time-consuming procedure and disruptive to the learning process. Delays in starting care may put a child in harm’s way.

School Efforts Thrive

Some communities have taken a lead in asthma education. The early Childhood Education Program initiated by the Chicago Public School System, for example, serves 15,000 pre-school students in more than 300 schools. That program was designed to provide health education for parents and staff.

Other programs available include One Minute Asthma: What You Need to Know, an interactive training model.

There are other NHLBI asthma education and prevention products that deserve recognition:

Managing Asthma at School: Making a Difference

Managing Asthma: A Guide for Schools

Asthma Awareness: Curriculum for the Elementary School Classroom and

Managing Allergies and Asthma at School: Tips for School Teachers and Staff.

Asthma education is one area where no child should be left behind, especially children living in urban areas, African-American children and children living in single-parent homes. These youngsters generally have higher incidences of asthma.

Inner-city schools often become a lifeline and a primary provider of care and social support. As such, incorporating health care for children on this level is valuable, crucial and socially responsible.

Michael Donnellan is a California practitioner.