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Health barriers to learning a concern for schools

Health barriers to learning a concern for schools

January 23, 2013

As parents and teachers gear up for the 2013 school year, research from the University of Canterbury (UC) highlights the need for schools and parents to consider health issues that act as barriers to learning.

UC researchers Penni Cushman and Tracy Clelland have found poor nutritional choices and a lack of food are seen by teachers to have a serious effect on students’ learning. Mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, depression and emotional issues around self-worth, bullying and stereotyping were also of concern as well as a lack of sleep, a lack of physical activity, and low fitness.

While teachers and parents want students to achieve to the best of their ability, UC Associate Professor Penni Cushman and senior tutor Tracy Clelland believe greater attention to health barriers will make this more attainable.

They surveyed 1000 primary and secondary schools about health issues in schools. More than half (58 percent) of the schools that responded identified issues relating to food choices, with teachers referring to food in crinkly packets, junk food, foods high in fat and sugar, high-energy drinks and foods high in caffeine and low in nutrients, as barriers to learning.

Poor food choices were seen by teachers to result in sluggishness and an inability to focus or concentrate in class.

When the issue of food choices was broken down by school decile level, type and location, it was apparent that food choices were a greater issue in low decile urban schools than in the high decile, urban and rural schools.

Although 72 percent of the low decile respondents listed food choices as an issue, 44 percent of the high decile respondents also said that food issues adversely affected learning, suggesting that poor food choices abound regardless of family income.

Twenty-six percent of respondents perceived hunger to be affecting their students’ ability to learn. Primary school students in low-decile urban schools were most likely to arrive at school inadequately nourished.

A total of 41 percent of respondents from these schools (compared with 12.5 percent of respondents from high-decile schools) cited lack of food as a concern.

Schools are not ignoring the impact that poor food choices or lack of food can have on learning. Every school that identified food-related barriers to learning also outlined a wide range of strategies they had implemented to address these issues.

However a more comprehensive approach that incorporates parents, school and community working together is needed. The UC survey findings supported research that shows a clear and consistent relationship between mental health and academic outcomes.

The UC researchers said while secondary schools used their guidance counsellors to manage distressed students, primary schools often had to rely on less qualified school-based help, as well as community-based resources regarding where a school’s responsibilities began and ended.

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