Flessner headshot

Chris Flessner, an associate professor in the department of psychology. 

Christopher Flessner, an associate professor in the department of psychology, is launching a food allergy safety training project through a national grant to help lower-income children and their families develop skills to handle allergies safely.

Flessner received a $238,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for “The Food Allergy Superheroes Training” (FAST) program that he created. He will be collaborating with his clinical child psychology graduate students on the project.

His project was inspired by a firearm prevention study for children, which he was involved in while in graduate school. What struck Flessner was how similar it was to allergists teaching adults how to cope when they are at risk of coming into contact with a certain foods they are allergic to. Allergists are unable to have time permitting within their schedules to be doing this regularly with children because their age and attention span. 

“From an allergist’s perspective, they are so busy and the amount they have to get done in a session; that’s a lot of time to train a kid on what to do,” Flessner said. “It isn’t feasible. Schools are the same way. The moment you get into school and leave, there’s not enough time to do these kinds of trainings.”

Flessner said schools are improving on modifying ways to keep kids safe, but there is only so much they can do.

“It’s impossible to keep kids safe in all places. They go over their friends’ houses, extracurriculars and birthday parties, which parents can’t always be with them,” Flessner said. “The kids need to know which questions to ask.”

This drove Flessner to generate his research project in an effort to break down the stereotypical barrier that children cannot process things effectively when it comes to safety.

He also said food allergies tend to provoke more anxiety in the individual and even their families.

“If you have a kid with a serious food allergy and the parents are hypervigilant, rightfully so, because they do not want their child to get hurt, then this can cause the child to be anxious because they do not want to get hurt from the allergy,” Flessner said.

Flessner said food allergies have been increasing in the last twenty years.

“It’s a relatively more recent phenomenon, which there tends to be a lag in helping families on how to cope and learn skills to deal with this,” Flessner said. “There’s not a lot of opportunities with families.”

Flessner chose to focus on six to eight-year-old lower-income children in Rootstown, Ravenna and other cities within a 10 to 15 minute radius of Kent. 

He said children who come from lower-income and more racially diverse backgrounds tend to have less accessibility to allergy medications, like epinephrine, and medical insurance.  

He is recruiting participants through Facebook and collaborating with allergists from Akron Children’s Hospital and the Cleveland Clinic.

Flessner said he plans to start the randomized trial portion of the FAST program in the first year by recruiting the parent-advisory board, showing the intervention and receiving their feedback from it. 

Flessner said he wants to have four graduate students to be part of the parent-advisory team and the trainings to come to the families’ homes to explain the activities and education for the 15 to 20 minute sessions.

“It’s a little different from the graduates’ coursework because you get to work and play with kids. That’s what they want to do. They want to get into the fun part of clinical psychology,” Flessner said.

He also said that this can eliminate barriers for families to participate by making this available day, nights and weekends, depending on what will work for them. 

“Being able to come to their house can help with transportation and five days a week can be a lot for a family with their extracurriculars and busy schedules,” Flessner said. “This can give us insight on how many sessions we need.”

The length and the delivery of the training also matters to not only make it entertaining for the children, but to maintain their attention throughout the duration.

“Kids don’t respond well to monotone voices,” Flessner said. “They like loud things like cartoons and for things to be over the top. We will set up role play scenarios such as fake candy bars.”

In the second year after his randomized trial is complete, his next goal is to expand it to multiple sites in the United States, while partnering with pediatricians and allergists to make it the best version it can be.

“A lot people have allergies, whether they are seasonal or food," Flessner said. "What to do with them is a whole different ball game."

Sabrina Scott is a general assignment reporter. Contact her at sscott61@kent.edu

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