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Teacher educating her class on common invisible illnesses such as asthma

How to Talk to Children About Asthma

Reading time | 6 mins
Here’s to teaching children about asthma in a fun and engaging way.


My childhood with asthma

I’ve had asthma for as long as I can remember. And so many asthma memories come from childhood. I remember how night-time was the most challenging time for me. I have many memories of venturing back downstairs to my parents in a coughing fit. The usual routine would involve boiling water and placing a scoop of vapour rub into a bowl. We’d mix the hot water with vapour rub and I would then lean over the bowl and inhale the steam until I felt better. I would then take my inhaler through a spacer and go back to bed.

I was aware that my brother and sister didn’t have the same issues as me as they weren’t up at night coughing and needing medicine. I took a preventer inhaler in the mornings and at night and I took a reliever inhaler when necessary.

Without a doubt the most frightening experience from my childhood was my first visit to hospital. I had been out in Dublin with my family and I had a severe cough that we couldn’t get under control. When I got to the hospital I was put on a nebuliser for the first time. It was a scary experience for me as a child, and I remember asking lots of questions about what it was and what it did.

As I grew up and became a teenager, my asthma became much milder. I prevented flair ups by avoiding triggers such as running, dust and pollen, but controlling my asthma was no longer a part of my everyday routine like it had been.

In my early twenties, however, my asthma took a turn for the worse. I was frequently having episodes. Environmental factors that never affected me before were suddenly things I had to avoid. I quickly realised that I needed help controlling it, and I spent a couple of years trying different combinations of inhalers and visiting a respiratory consultant who carried out chest X-rays and lung function tests. We finally found a way of controlling it. But it was hard to accept that I would have to take this medication twice daily when I hadn’t had to do it for so many years. I realised that I hadn’t quite understood asthma as a condition when I was a child. Even as an adult I’m constantly learning more and more about it.

Teaching children about asthma

As a primary school teacher in Ireland, I teach many children with asthma. In 2019, the Asthma Society of Ireland released the Easing the Economic Burden of Asthma study. It stated that one in ten children in Ireland have asthma and that on average, five school days are missed a year because of it. I decided to sign my school up for the Asthma Friendly Schools Programme.

The programme requires schools to do the following:

  • Gather information about the children with asthma in their schools
  • Distribute information on asthma to other staff members
  • Appoint a staff member to implement the programme
  • Display posters and information on asthma around the school
  • Appoint a group of students to be Asthma Ambassadors
  • Facilitate the Asthma Ambassadors in educating themselves about asthma
  • Facilitate the Asthma Ambassadors in creating asthma awareness materials
  • Organise educational events for parents or staff
  • Develop an asthma policy for the school
  • Celebrate World Asthma Day

The school’s principle and parents of our kids with asthma were very supportive and enthusiastic about spreading asthma awareness. Our ultimate goal was to achieve an Asthma Friendly Schools Award.

The Asthma Society of Ireland provided us with a resource pack that contained posters and booklets for distributing around the school. The posters were great for raising asthma awareness and included the ‘5 Step Rule’ of what to do during an asthma attack. I also found animated Sesame Street posters online which were suitable for the younger children. The posters were colourful and eye catching and explained how a child might help a friend who is experiencing asthma symptoms.

We held Asthma Ambassador meetings every term. During the meetings, the children had the opportunity to share their own experiences with asthma but also their own tips for coping with it. The children had lots of brilliant ideas, from keeping their inhaler in their bedside table, to sleeping with their pillows propped up. We watched cartoons about asthma triggers and how inhalers work. The children created their own posters for display on our asthma awareness board.

Having a positive conversation

I thought long and hard about how to talk to children about asthma. It was so important that we spoke about it in a positive way. I was determined to show them that when managed well, asthma shouldn’t get in the way of living our lives to the full and doing the things we want to do. I wanted to prepare them for asthma symptoms without worrying them unnecessarily.

It was best for the children to share their own experiences, to stick to the facts and bring it back to how the medicine for asthma works. We looked at the different types of inhalers and the children indicated the ones they recognised. One child shared a brilliant explanation. She said, ‘the reliever opens your airways but the preventer keeps them open.’

There were lots of great resources online that helped us explore asthma in a child friendly way. The children particularly enjoyed ‘Iggy and the Inhalers’ cartoons on YouTube. We used this as inspiration for our asthma presentation for school assembly. We received our Silver Asthma Friendly Schools Award and are working towards the Gold Award.

Creating interactive learning tools

Last year, as part of our annual science fair, we set up a table for the Asthma Ambassadors. The children created a range of really interesting investigations inspired by asthma.

Firstly, a group investigated the air quality levels around the school. By placing cards coated in petroleum jelly at different points around the building, the children were able to determine where the worst air quality was. Another group created a visual representation of pollution in our day-to-day lives. They made a model featuring buildings, factories and cars, and used incense to show pollution coming out of chimneys.

Two other investigations demonstrated the impact of asthma on the body. One group created a maze and got people to blow a pompom around it using a straw to show the importance of lung capacity. A similar experiment got people to race plastic ducks by blowing them through the water. It was fun, and explained difficult concepts in a way that was easy to understand.

The takeaway

There are so many fun and interesting ways to explore asthma with children, from watching videos and designing posters to carrying out science experiments. It’s possible to educate them about asthma in a positive way that highlights the importance of taking it seriously without worrying them unnecessarily.

Overall, the programme has really raised awareness and improved understanding of asthma. I too, picked up tips and information from the children as they shared their experiences. I know that I would have benefited from such a programme when I was growing up and I hope to continue to raise awareness about asthma with the children that I work with.

Article sources:

NPS-IE-NP-00123 November 2020