Helping Kids with Asthma Succeed

Understanding this common breathing challenge can be a boon for suffering students.

By Eliana Osborn


Boy with asthma inhaler

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that in the United States, more than seven million children suffer from asthma. With so many affected, chances are, you will have pupils in your classroom who struggle with breathing problems at least some of the time. By educating yourself a bit about this very common childhood ailment, you can help children with asthma spend more time learning and less time worrying about getting enough air to breathe.

What is Asthma?

This is how the American Lung Association explains asthma: “When you breathe, air passes through your nose and down your throat into your lungs. Inside your lungs are branching tubes called airways. With asthma, the airways are often swollen and red (or inflamed). This makes them extra sensitive to things that you are exposed to in the environment every day, or asthma 'triggers.'” "When someone with asthma breathes in a trigger, the insides of the airways make extra mucus and swell even more. This narrows the space for the air to move in and out of the lungs. The muscles that wrap around your airways can also tighten, making breathing even harder. When that happens, it’s called an asthma flare-up, asthma episode or asthma 'attack.'”

What are Common Triggers?

According to one study, 70% of patients with asthma also had allergies. While you may not have chalk dust clogging the air in the classroom, look around and see if there might be other allergens issues.  Dusty window sills? Old carpet squares? Chemical residue from harsh cleaners? These can all be triggers.

Cold weather and exercise are two of the most common triggers of asthma attacks in children. Just knowing this can help you make smart decisions. For example, running on a particularly cold morning is a recipe for trouble for many kids with asthma, so a sudden weather change means you might need to shift your plans.

Pets, molds, smoke, and even certain foods can trigger asthma as well, but are less common in a school setting. If a child in your class is having more breathing problems in your classroom than at home, some further sleuthing for causes could be necessary.

How Does an Asthma Attack Look and Feel?

There are four different symptoms of asthma. A person may wheeze, have a frequent cough, feel like he can’t get enough air, or have chest tightness. Two of these signs are more external, while the other two can only be felt by the patient. A sensation of tightness in the chest, or pressure like someone is sitting on your lungs, is a big red flag that an asthma attack may be coming.

As a teacher, a child may seem just fine but be complaining of symptoms. This can be challenging as you aren’t always sure if they are really struggling or just looking for attention. If you are educated about the early stages of asthma, you can be alert before serious breathing trouble begins. 

In the days following an asthma flare up, a person may feel tired. She will also want to be extra careful to avoid triggers, as she will be more likely to have another attack. For an elementary-aged child, she might be overly cautious as the memory of discomfort and fear is still fresh in her mind.

The beginning of the school year, before any breathing problems have presented themselves, is a great time to talk to parent and child about what an asthma attack looks like for that specific student.

What is an Asthma Action Plan?

Some kids have rare breathing problems, while others are on daily preventative medication. Either way, all children with an asthma diagnosis should have an action plan, which has been created with a doctor. This plan will provide the steps of care particular to each child. Your nurse or campus health aide should have a record of this plan, but you will be more comfortable and confident if you have your own copy and understand the plan.

Missed school is a big problem for kids with asthma, and they can get behind educationally if their breathing problems aren’t kept in check. By doing all you can to understand what asthma is and make your classroom a safe breathing environment, you can help ensure that all your learners have a chance to succeed.

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How Lungs Work

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An informational video about asthma leads to a project to promote awareness. Ideal for a class with asthma sufferers so that all may learn more about the condition.