NIH Funds Kent State Psychologist’s Project to Teach Children Food Allergy Safety Skills

Girl Eating
Chris Flessner, Ph.D., associate professor of psychological sciences in Kent State University’s College of Arts and Sciences, recently secured a two-year, $238,000 grant for his project, “The Food Allergy Superheroes Training (FAST) Program: Increasing Adherence to Food Allergy Safety Guidelines.”
Dr Chris Flessner

Food allergies can be as dangerous as firearms for children who don’t have the skills to react responsibly to when they’re exposed to them.

A Kent State University researcher with a background in safety training models — and a very personal motivation — has devised a method to help some children with food allergies stay safe, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) just granted him the funding to test it.

Chris Flessner, Ph.D., associate professor of psychological sciences in Kent State’s College of Arts and Sciences, recently secured a two-year, $238,000 grant for his project, “The Food Allergy Superheroes Training (FAST) Program: Increasing Adherence to Food Allergy Safety Guidelines.”

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The project will provide training for 6- to 8-year-old children from low-income backgrounds based on the same model Flessner studied as a graduate student for teaching kids to be safe around guns.

“Those kinds of skills that you want a kid to follow to stay safe around a firearm — stop, don’t touch, run away and tell an adult — are really the exact same things you want them to do to stay safe around peanuts, for example,” Flessner said.

Flessner said he and his wife have found the model helpful since their son developed an allergy to tree nuts at the age of 1.

“The basic guideline that most kids with food allergies get is that they should avoid the food they’re allergic to,” he said. “The hard part is that 6- to 8-year-olds tend to be a little bit impulsive and don’t always follow perfectly what their parents might tell them to do.”

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Flessner said that age is also challenging because children become much more social, going to school, friends’ houses and other environments where their parents are not around to watch them. He said the project will focus on low-income children because school and hospital data have shown those families are less likely to have access to epinephrine and are more likely to make trips to a hospital or emergency room for food allergy reactions.

Flessner’s program will first recruit 10 children and their families to review the manual his team has developed and provide feedback.

“We want to basically get their opinion on what they think is good, what’s bad and what we can do to make it a little more tailored to their experience,” he said. “Are there certain superheroes that seem to fit better with kids from low-income backgrounds, or certain analogies, or examples of situations that are risky for them that might better resonate with them?”

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Following the review phase, Flessner said he’ll pilot the study with 10 more children and families. The program will involve psychology students going to the children’s homes for five days, spending 20-25 minutes each day teaching the children the skills, then having them repeat them in different practice scenarios.

“We’ll ask them, for example, ‘pretend you’re at school in the lunchroom, and you see what looks like a peanut butter sandwich, what should you do?’” he said. “It’s designed to be short and to the point because the skills are very basic. It’s just about having them practice them over and over again.”

A randomized trial will follow, involving 50 children, in which 25 receive the FAST training and the other half are given standard food allergy safety guidelines to follow. 

For more information about Kent State’s Department of Psychological Sciences, visit www.kent.edu/psychology.

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Media Contacts:
Dan Pompili, dpompili@kent.edu330-672-0731
Emily Vincent, evincen2@kent.edu330-672-8595

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