Children's concepts of illness: an intervention to improve knowledge

Br J Health Psychol. 2002 May;7(Pt 2):129-47. doi: 10.1348/135910702169402.


Objectives: This study aimed to explore children's understanding of illness and attempted to improve their knowledge through the presentation of a factual story and group discussions.

Design: Children's responses to questions pertaining to three ailment types (contagious illness, non-contagious illness and injury), for three process variables (cause, time from cause to effect, and recovery factors), were recorded before and after a training intervention.

Method: Children aged 4 (N=30) and 7 years old (N=30) were initially individually interviewed about common ailments (contagious: chickenpox and cold; non-contagious: asthma and cancer; injury: scraped knee and broken arm). A week later half of the children in each age group (N=30) were included in a small group (N=5) intervention where factual information about three of the ailments was provided and children participated in guided group discussions. The remaining control children received no intervention. All children were subsequently individually interviewed a week later using the initial interview schedule.

Results: The 7-year-olds exhibited more sophisticated knowledge of illness at pre-test than the 4-year-olds. Comparison of pre- to post-intervention changes showed that children who participated in the intervention condition improved overall in their understanding of the ailments significantly more than controls. However, detailed analyses revealed a large degree of variation across the sample in terms of post-test change for individual items.

Conclusion: Children's understanding of illness is complex and undergoes developmental changes between the ages of 4 and 7. Educational interventions that provide age-appropriate factual information and peer group discussions regarding illness processes might be effective in improving knowledge of illness among young children.