For every child and parent, starting school, meeting new friends and going on playdates can be a nerve-wracking experience. But for parents of children with severe food allergies, these new experiences can be life-or-death scenarios.

To alleviate these anxieties and ensure kids’ safety, a Kent State University researcher is developing a new training program that will teach kids how to avoid their allergens and become their own allergy superheroes.

For the past two years, Dr. Chris Flessner has been developing “Food Allergy Superheroes Training (FAST) Program: Increasing Adherence to Food Allergy Safety Guidelines,” a five-day education and training program that helps kids with allergies practice what to do if they see a new food and incentivizes them by letting them become superheroes with each level passed.

“Superheroes protect other people, but they also know how to stay safe themselves, and that’s where it comes into making sure they’re not touching the food and they’re asking an adult,” Flessner said.

Now armed with a two-year $238,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, the psychological sciences professor is actively recruiting 6- to 8-year-olds from low-income families to review the program and offer feedback.

Flessner modeled the FAST program after a gun safety training project developed by Drs. Mike Himle and Ray Miltengberger at North Dakota State University, where Flessner earned his master’s degree. He worked on the project on and off for a year, but didn’t touch it again until about seven years ago when his son Landon was diagnosed with a nut allergy.

“As my wife and I met with more and more doctors, we realized that largely what we seemed to get was education and to not feed him anything with nuts. That was kind of it. The more we got used to coping with food allergies in a little kid, the more I realized that this is really similar to what I remember having to teach little kids to stay safe around firearms,” Flessner said.

According to Flessner, simply providing the information may work well for adolescents and older children, but young kids, who can be more impulsive, need more help, especially if they come from low-income families who may not be able to afford Epi-Pens or autoinjectors that can cost more than $500.

Additionally, because allergens are often hidden in foods (a child who is allergic to milk cannot see the milk in a cupcake), there is an added layer of danger.

“Sometimes it’s not obvious, and based on the kid’s age, their reading level is variable, so any food that they are presented or that they come across should be treated as it may have an allergen in it, and they should ask an adult to make sure it’s safe,” he said.

Flessner is beginning Phase 1 of the project, and will ask families what they like and don’t like about the program, and then will tweak the program based on the families’ individual experiences. In Phase 2, an additional 10 children will work with Flessner and his research assistants for five days. Phase 3 will involve 50 children, with half participating in the FAST program and half receiving standard education.

“We’ll have a pre-, post- and one-month followup assessment. This is modeled after what we did with firearms, and we’ll stage a situation where they have to come in contact with food. Our food will be the Enjoy Life brand that’s free of all allergens and we’ll see how they do. Kids that touch it and eat it get the lowest score, and kids that stop and ask get the highest score. That’s our primary criterion for whether or not they’re responding well to the program,” Flessner said.

Flessner would then like to conduct a larger study with more children and multiple sites to see if they could teach the program into two to three days, as opposed to five. If the condensed program is successful, he would like to bring it to allergist offices and potentially schools.

“After I left North Dakota, Ray Miltenberger did some research to see if they could teach kids to teach kids how to stay safe around firearms, and I think ultimately that would be a cool thing to do with food allergies or any safety program. Get kids actively engaged and help them help their classmates. Training any kid to help them be safe when they have a friend with an allergy could be a cool idea. There’s no intervention around that I know of to increase adherence, so it’s an open playing field.”

For more information on the FAST Program or to participate, contact the Pediatric Anxiety and Allergy Research Clinic at 330-676-2200 or allergy@kent.edu.

Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, kkano@recordpub.com or on Twitter @KristaKanoRCedu.