Should Schools be involved in preventing childhood obesity or should this issue lie strictly with the parents?
As schools strive to be allies in the fight to get kids in shape, students are receiving health assessments, encouragement to be active and nutrition education.
Many schools are addressing physical activity and nutrition with innovative programs, some financed through grants from the state Department of Health, insurance companies and health systems.
"There are a lot of other demands on students and schools to perform academically, so we have to recognize those challenges yet increase the opportunity to learn about healthy habits to avoid increasing this trend toward child obesity," said state Secretary of Health Everette James.
At Eagle View Middle School in the Cumberland Valley School District, students are doing a Fitness Quest circuit that includes working with weights, spin bikes and Bosu balls for core strengthening. The school purchased the equipment with a grant through the Highmark Healthy High Five initiative.
"In middle school, kids are more tired and starting not to want to move as much as when they're younger,"said Cecelia Clippinger, physical education teacher at Eagle View. “We need to develop more awareness of good fitness habits for life.”
As standards of academics increase at schools, so does the students’ stress level, and it’s important to increase their exercise opportunities to deal with that stress, she said. At her school, however, she said health classes have been made part of the physical education curriculum and so students are losing 11 active gym classes per year. Therefore, she encourages her students to get active outside of school time.
“Schools are a great vehicle to be able to make available resources for kids,” said Dr. Robert Muscalus, senior medical director for Highmark Inc. “I don’t know if we’ll solve the problem of childhood obesity in one generation [as Michelle Obama proposes], but heightening awareness and providing education to the kids and parents is the start of being able to have an impact.”
Thirty students from life skills classes at Central Dauphin Middle School and Central Dauphin East High School are receiving education on fitness and healthy eating from United Cerebral Palsy through a grant from Highmark, according to Shannon Leib, the district’s director of public and community relations.
“The district recognized that this group of students was sedentary. We felt it was important to improve health and model healthy living for them,” Leib said. “Their feedback has been tremendous. They really enjoy it.”
With only 38 percent of Pennsylvania children getting the recommended hour of physical activity a day, James said schools must not only educate children about the importance of exercise but also increase opportunities for it.
That’s where Active Schools, a grant initiative of the state Department of Health, comes in. “We thought, let’s give the schools some resources to implement activities and prove it can be done in a school day and won’t disrupt the rest of the curriculum,” James said.
Each of the 40 middle schools selected will receive a $5,000 grant from the Health Department through the federal Preventive Health and Health Services Block Grant. In addition, each school will receive a $10,000 grant from an organization in their region that has agreed to support the Active Schools program. These organizations include Highmark and Capital BlueCross.
The state Education and Health departments are working together to measure not only overall fitness of the participating students, but also the impact of child health on absenteeism and academic performance. “We hope to confirm recent research that shows healthier kids do better in school,” James said.
He is also hoping to see improvement between student health assessments done last fall and those to be done this spring. “I hope we’ll see lower BMIs, faster times running the mile and more sit-ups and curl-ups,” he said.
All Pennsylvania school students undergo an annual growth screening program where their body mass index is calculated based on their height and weight. A BMI percentile compares them to their peers and ranks them as underweight, normal weight, overweight or obese.
Efforts might be beginning to pay off already, James said. He points to a slight decrease in the combined percentage of obese and overweight children in kindergarten through sixth grade in Pennsylvania — from 32.74 percent in the 2006-07 school year to 31.73 percent in the 2007-08 school year. It’s the first decline in 30 years.
Schools are also focused on ways to make good nutrition fun for kids. With $1 million from a federal stimulus grant called Communities Putting Prevention to Work, efforts are under way to place nutrition information in cafeterias and on menus sent to parents, and to make locally grown, healthy food available, James said.
“It’s very inconsistent to teach the importance of how many calories you take in vs. calorie burn time and then not offer that calorie information in the cafeteria,” James said. “Schools have to provide the opportunity to practice the healthy habits while they’re teaching them.”
Before kids even enter schools, the Keystone Color Me Healthy program provides early childhood practitioners with resources and materials to teach preschoolers that healthy eating and movement are fun. The focus is on child care centers, Head Start, early intervention, family literacy and pre-kindergarten programs.
As much as schools strive to offer healthier food and more exercise, high school senior Danielle Puckett said she wishes schools would focus more on peer sensitivity to overweight classmates.
“Kids would always make fat jokes to me, like I should be in the ocean with the whales,” said Danielle, 18, who is 5 feet, 4 inches and 385 pounds. “I tried to ignore them, but it really hurt.”
While Danielle said she learned some useful information about nutrition in health class and got some exercise in gym class, her lasting impression of school is “a living hell.”
Danielle isn’t alone in her struggles at school. A study from the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University found that obese children miss two days more of school a year than their normal weight classmates. Researchers theorize it’s because they want to avoid being bullied or teased.
Gym class was the site of some of Danielle’s worst moments at school. Kids would make fun of her when she ran, or they would wonder aloud in the locker room how she found clothes big enough to fit her.
“Danielle would come home and be sad and quiet,” her mother, Dawn Keller, said. “She used to write in her journals, ‘I hate myself.’"
The teachers would tell the kids to stop, and they would — until the teacher was out of earshot, Danielle said. She wishes that she could have had an individualized physical education plan that would have taken her out of the embarrassing class situation and allowed her to run or swim on her own.
The goal at any school is to promote a sense of community where bullying is unacceptable, said Jason Pedersen, president of the Association of School Psychologists of Pennsylvania and a school psychologist in the Derry Twp. School District.
Many schools have adopted anti-bullying curriculum and/or curriculum that promotes resilience in students in order to be proactive in supporting all students, he said.
“In terms of addressing bullying behaviors toward children who are dealing with issues of childhood obesity, most schools would likely handle them in the same manner that any bullying behavior would be handled. The victim, bystanders, teachers and parents all have a responsibility to respond as a community, regardless of the reason for bullying,” Pedersen said.
That’s how it works at Dillsburg Elementary School in the Northern York School District. A bullying prevention program teaches the entire school body how to address habitual, intentionally mean behavior, said Principal Pat Franko.
“I can’t say that I noticed overweight kids being a specific target with the reports that I am getting,” said Franko, who did have to deal with one situation this year when a girl began crying because a boy told her that she weighed 160 pounds. “I addressed it with him when the teacher told me, and he asked if he could apologize to her. I followed up, and he did indeed apologize.”
Classroom teachers hold monthly meetings on topics related to bully prevention, she said. Students are encouraged to add items to the agenda, creating an anonymous outlet where an overweight student could report teasing and teachers could address it with the class without mentioning specific names, Franko said.
Danielle found that as she got into high school, most students matured and the hurtful comments lessened. When Danielle turned 17, she began to accept herself and concentrate on the person she was inside — a resilient young woman with hopes for the future — and allow those goals, not her weight, to define who she really is.
“The remarks still hurt, but I tried not to let them get the best of me,” said Danielle, who will graduate from Susquehanna Twp. High School and plans to begin pre-nursing classes in the fall. “My friends told me it doesn’t matter how I look because my personality makes up for it.”
Hippy Chic~Yoga posing, vintage loving, baking, cooking, crafting, gardening, upcycling, reading, mommy of 3 and devoted wifey. Follow me at http://www.accidentallycountry.blogspot.com/