Neag school studies link between obesity and test scores
Published: Friday, March 15, 2013
Updated: Friday, March 15, 2013 01:03
While most Americans realize that childhood obesity decreases stamina on the playground, what they may not know is that this epidemic negatively impacts classroom achievement too. This link between obesity and academic performance is the subject of a NEAG School of Education study headed by doctoral student Scott McCarthy and co-authored by doctoral student Lindsay Fallon and assistant professor and research scientist Lisa Sanetti.
McCarthy, who also serves as a public school psychologist in Greenwich, looked specifically at current school health programs and how they can be improved to encourage students of all ages to lead healthier lives in the future. He reported his findings in his dissertation “The Link Between Obesity and Academics: School Psychologists’ Role in Collaborative Prevention,” and some of the research was even featured in the “National Association of School Psychologists’ School Psychology Forum.”
Through their research, McCarthy, Fallon and Sanetti discovered that schools could provide the ideal environment for educating and enforcing healthy lifestyle habits in children. “As mental health professionals who work in school settings, we found that many of the interventions, data tracking systems and the coordination of services that needed to be provided in order to have successful outcomes could actually be provided within the school setting by school-based professionals,” McCarthy said.
The most effective school programs to educate and enforce healthy lifestyle habits in children are those that address a multitude of factors that influence body weight--such as psychosocial influences, family eating habits and proximity to healthful foods – beyond just the basic nutrition and exercise habits. “As schools begin to address obesity and health to a greater extent, multi-faceted programs that impact each of the influences on our health will be necessary. Programs that stress eating healthier, exercising more and family nutrition with research-based methods that are sustainable in the school-setting are the most likely to achieve success,” McCarthy said.
One of the most significant aspects of the study is that it not only identified effective school reforms, but how to implement them. The first step, according to Fallon, is to recognize which students are at the highest risk for poor health choices and design individual services to accommodate each student’s needs. Once student needs have been assessed, school psychologists can lead classroom reform programs that focus on prevention, screening and intervention of current health habits.
“Our hope is that school psychologists will become leaders addressing the obesity epidemic in educational settings, not by tackling the problem alone, but by coordinating the efforts of school staff so that everyone is on board with encouraging students to be active and healthy,” Fallon said.
The findings that obesity inhibits academic performance aren’t concrete yet, but research similar to McCarthy, Fallon and Sanetti’s suggests that a relationships between these two variables is likely to exist. Both the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics have conducted research on this topic, and similar findings have appeared in the “Journal of Adolescent Health and Preventative Medicine.” The common thread amongst the studies: obese children perform worse on standardized tests than their healthier weight classmates.
Like the NEAG School study, this research indicates that simple classroom reforms can have a major impact in educating students about the dangers of obesity and encouraging healthy habits. Increasing students activity level can be accomplished with more gym classes, “walk breaks,” and active after school sessions. Smart eating habits can be enforced with nutrition and obesity education and swapping soda and candy for fruits and vegetables in school lunches.
While McCarthy, Fallon and Sanetti plan to put their findings into action, they also hope that schools across the United States will follow suit. “I think this issue will only continue to gain recognition in the coming years,” Fallon said. “It may be tough to see change in small increments of time but I hope when we look back on this article in 20 years, some of the change that is so direly needed will have been achieved.”