Washing Works: Hand-Washing Keeps Kids in School, and Sickness Out

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Teaching good hand-washing skills actually improves school attendance rates.

The Doctor Will See You Now

School absenteeism causes lots of problems: kids miss out on learning, parents miss work, and sometimes schools lose critical funding. Absences are most commonly caused by illness and typically peak during flu season.

It’s well known that hand-washing decreases the spread of many common infections including colds and flu viruses. It’s also well known that school kids aren’t the best when it comes to washing carefully or often enough. What to do? A group of researchers recently reported on a simple intervention which made a big difference.

Using a study group of 773 school children, ages 4-14, they investigated whether teaching and reminding kids regularly about hand-washing would be more effective than simply providing adequate time and materials (soap and hand sanitizer) to wash. They divided the study population into two groups. Both had plenty of access to soap, water and hand sanitizer but one group also had regular instruction and periodic refreshers on the importance and the technique of washing properly.

The instruction was age-appropriate. For example, finger puppets taught the pre K and K children, while older children had games and demos to drive home the message. The group who were instructed showed a significant decrease in their total absenteeism, and the absenteeism related to illness. The differences between the two groups were highest during the flu season and decreased thereafter.

The researchers concluded that school children could be taught to improve their hand hygiene and that such as improvement would be reflected in better health and decreased absenteeism, which means more time in school. They suggest that the improved attendance would improve students’ academic performances.

The researchers offer two recommendations to schools:

  • Ensure that all common areas are stocked with hand sanitizer and that all bathrooms are well-stocked with soap, water and towels or hand-driers
  • Provide a short hand hygiene lesson for the students at the beginning of each academic year as well as refresher lessons throughout the year.

Parents may wish to employ these strategies at home as well to help in the battle against contagious diseases.

The study is published in the journal, Pediatrics.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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Esther Entin, M.D., is a pediatrician and clinical associate professor of Family Medicine at Brown University's Warren Alpert School of Medicine. She writes for TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com.

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