Dear Dr. Shore,
I teach sixth grade and have in my class a student who has a severe case of asthma. What are the key things I need to know?
Asthma is a respiratory disease in which the airways that carry air into and out of the lungs become inflamed and blocked. The illness affects about five percent of children, so teachers on average will have one child per class with asthma. Asthma is not contagious, so teachers should not have concerns that it can be passed from one student to another.
The symptoms of asthma range from mild to severe, and vary with each child. Children with asthma can experience attacks in which they are literally panting for breath. They might experience some anxiety and distress, especially if the episode is severe. Most asthma episodes come on gradually, so the child usually has time to alert you and take action, usually by taking medicine immediately to help clear the airways.
If you see a student beginning to experience an asthma attack, its important that you and the other students stay calm. If you become nervous, you might excite the child, which can aggravate the attack. Offer to help the child with his or her medication, although most children will be able to do that on their own. The child also might perform special exercises to slow the breathing. After the episode ends, you might want to have the child rest in the nurse's office or engage in a quiet activity.
Asthma can cause a student to miss much class time. Children with asthma are absent from school three times as often as children without asthma. In addition, frequent trips to the school nurse lessen time in the classroom. Even when they are in class, asthma symptoms and accompanying anxiety can impede a childs focus on schoolwork, or asthma-related sleeping problems can cause the child to be tired in class. As a result, you might find that the child is confused regarding directions or lags behind in class work.
Because asthma varies from child to child, its important that you and the school nurse talk with the students parents at the beginning of the school year to discuss how to manage the illness in school. You might take the parents on a tour of your classroom when school is not in session so they can help you identify possible triggers, such as animals with fur, chalk dust, rugs, science projects with plants or flowers, or fresh paint.