The Healthy Classroom
The New Evidence-Based Way to Teach Healthy Eating
Editor’s Note: Cintia Hintojosa is a researcher at the University of Chicago, who was part of the research team in a recent study that asked: What can be done to reduce unhealthy eating among adolescents? Here, in a guest post for the Ideabook blog, she explains their groundbreaking findings—and how to apply this new approach to health education in your classroom.
Childhood obesity rates have more than tripled since 1980 and despite countless school-based health interventions, effective solutions still elude experts. Why? One reason might be because traditional school health messages often rely on self-interest and future goals as motivators, but teens are more concerned about what’s happening in the here and now. As adolescents, they’re wired to want to feel like a socially conscious, autonomous person worthy of approval from one’s peers. So we—a team of psychologists from the University of Chicago and the University of Texas—decided to test a new approach: harnessing teens’ natural rebelliousness to motivate healthy eating.
Many adults know that food companies target kids and try to get them hooked from a young age. For instance, they engineer snacks to be addictive by increasing sugar and salt content, they create cartoons that draw kids to junk, and they use labeling to make foods appear healthier than they really are. Bottom line: Big Food is, in many ways, the new Big Tobacco. [Editor’s Note: Read all about it in our January feature, The Sinister Science of Irresistible Junk Food, and get our round-up of related teaching resources here!]
Our research team conducted a randomized experiment in which we simply told eighth-graders facts like these, then asked the teenagers to reflect on them:
- If you want to be controlled by rich company executives who make money getting children addicted to soda and junk food, then go ahead and eat those foods.
- If you want to make your own decisions and fight back against injustice and hypocrisy, then drink water or eat healthier food.
It's the latter message that resonated with teens, and the results of the study—published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this fall—were striking: The group who got the new treatment showed a 9 percent reduction in junk food calories when the principal offered them a choice between junk food or healthy food the next day. What's more: A group that got traditional health educational materials, like diagrams from a textbook, looked no different from a group that got no nutritional information. Simply put, the traditional approach to nutrition education did nothing.
Cleary, teens do not want to be manipulated, and as educators, you have the power to utilize this desire to teach healthy decision-making. Here are three tips that can help bring this student-centered approach into your classrooms:
- TIP 1: Emphasize respect for students’ autonomy. The standard methods of promoting school health— the all-school assembly, the health class lessons -- can feel to teens like adults are telling them how to make their personal choices. The more adults try, the more teens want to do the opposite. Teens need to feel respected and admired, especially when it comes to sensitive topics like how they should make personal decisions.
- TIP 2: Provide a purpose that speaks to students. Living in line with values like making the world a better place helps students feel motivated to be better and try harder. Just explaining basic health information to them, much of which they already know, doesn't. This approach isn’t limited to health; incorporating a purpose for learning that students naturally value can be applied to other classroom topics too. As a society, we should give teens the information they need, but in a way that lets them feel like the kind of person who wants to put it into action.
- TIP 3: Encourage a critical eye for negative influences. Big Food and Soda marketing campaigns are more pervasive than ever. Children and teens are exposed to advertising on billboards, television, websites, games, and phone apps. We can turn the tables by using these advertisements as an opportunity to remind students of the real message behind the ads. Have your students ask critical thinking questions about the ads they see: What are they trying to sell? Who is the audience? Are they using cartoon characters or celebrities? Do you think what they are saying is true?
For more information on how Big Food and Big Soda companies target kids and what parents and educators can do to counteract it, see:
- Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss
- Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wasink
- Slim by Design: by Brian Wasink
Editor's Note: Looking for non-fiction articles that can help you utilize this anti-manipulation approach in your health or life skills classroom? Check out this handy round-up of eight Choices stories that will empower your students to think critically about the forces that influence their decision-making.
4 Ways to Make Your Classroom More Body Positive
Editor's Note: Amy Lauren Smith is a Choices Teacher-Adviser; a 6th-8th grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China; and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher’s Guide each month. Visit her web site or follow her on Twitter!
This month, our debate story was inspired by the mayor of London's decision to ban all ads that promote unrealistic body images from public transportation. His argument is that unlike TV—where parents can change the channel or shield their children—public transportation has a captive audience.
Our classrooms work the same way. Every day, we have a captive audience of students coming in for at least an hour at a time, so it’s important that we create an environment that makes them all feel safe and welcome. If our goal is to instill a life-long passion for health and wellness, then we need to make sure we do so in a way that promotes positivity for all.
Here are four ways you can make your classroom more body positive:
1. Agree upon and enforce a set of class norms.
Most successful groups follow a set of agreed upon expectations that help them function and run smoothly. My class works the same way. Rather than give my students a list of rules that they must follow, we decide as a group what kind of behaviors we expect from each other. Using a list the students have generated themselves leads to a more inclusive, safe environment with less chance for body teasing.
2. Remove any anti-obesity messages.
With one-third of children currently overweight or obese, the fight against obesity is at the core of what we do. However, if we want to help our children on their journey to a healthy weight, we need to make sure they first feel accepted as they are right now.
To help students work towards a healthy weight, put the focus on a love of real food and physical activity, rather than on the fear of getting fat. The anti-obesity approach tends to alienate students who are struggling, and can also lead to fear or disordered eating even with those who aren’t.
3. Spend time teaching media literacy.
So much of the pressure that our students feel about their appearance is pushed on them from a very young age. Teaching them to look at these messages with a critical eye is key in promoting a healthy body image. These influences don’t just come from models in magazines—TV shows, children’s toys, superheroes, and video games all influence the way girls and boys feel about how they are supposed to look. Make sure you’re having discussions about unrealistic expectations, Photoshop, and the risks that come with comparing ourselves on social media as well.
4. Get the students to advocate for positivity.
The best way to counteract negative messages is with positive ones, so make sure your students have the opportunity to spread words of encouragement throughout your community. The act of being kind to others can also help them feel better about themselves. For some inspiration, check out how this teen used Post-it notes to start a movement in her school, and have your students spread sincere compliments of their own with our Compliment Generator activity.
Share These Wise Words on Group Projects!
Ah, group projects--as a teacher, they offer incomparable opportunities for learning, cooperation, and teamwork. But what happens when some students don't pull their weight, or when entire groups devolve into a state of chaos and frustration?
That's why we love this Life Skills Made Easy question, from Liza, a high school freshman in Florida.
We also adore the resulting advice (read the full column here) from big-time media project manager and career empowerment expert, Julie Hochheiser Ilkovich, which will help your students stay organized and accountable. We urge you download this Wise Words poster, hang it up in your classroom, and share it with colleagues. It's a crucial reminder we all need!
P.S.! Check out these other great Ideabook posts:
3 Healthy School Food Programs to Watch
Last spring, my seventh grade students had a chance to present their nutrition projects to a group of visiting executives from Sodexo, our school’s cafeteria provider. The regional manager and chef were excited to hear from the students and made promises to implement their suggestions for healthier and tastier food.
And they have, to an extent—just maybe not as fast as my students would like. Sodexo is a massive company, and we’re a big school. Changes of this scale have to roll out in phases, but I don’t want my students to get frustrated in the process or feel like their efforts have fallen flat.
To encourage their spirit of advocacy, we’re having them form a student “task force” that can help the Sodexo chefs as they implement the healthier new menu items. As I've been looking for inspiration for this project, I’ve found that there are many districts that are offering delicious and nutritious food, as well as sharing it on social media to encourage other schools to do the same.
If you’re looking to make healthy changes in your cafeteria, here are three Twitter accounts to check out.
1. Austin Independent School District (AISD), Texas: @AustinISDFood
Since the city is known for its vibrant foodie culture, it’s no surprise that their school food program is top notch, featuring fresh local food, ethnic variety, and of course, a fleet of super cool food trucks. Leave it to the fine folks of Austin to make cafeteria food tasty, healthy, and hip. Plus, last year at SXSWEdu, I had a chance to attend a two-hour workshop from AISD on their Whole Child program. Their focus on the social, emotional, and physical needs of their students was truly inspirational, and left me buzzing with ideas that I’ve been implementing in my classroom and my school community ever since.
2. Greenville County School District, South Carolina: @SchoolFoodRocks
Joe Urban is the director of the Food and Nutrition Services for Greenville County Schools, and his Twitter feed would rival that of some of the best food bloggers out there. Every school day, he’s posting pictures of cafeteria meals that are fresh, colorful, and guaranteed to make you hungry. He also posts tips for getting students excited about new veggies, involved in menu selection, and enjoying all sorts of food. According to his Twitter account, his district is the 44th largest in the U.S., disproving the argument that big districts can't implement healthy changes.
3. Windham Raymond Schools, Maine: @chefsamRSU14
There are so many great school food programs out there, but the creative and colorful dishes from Chef Sam particularly grabbed my attention. I love the idea of a chef taking ownership over school food, and the time and passion she puts into her work are apparent in all her posts. It’s exciting to see school food being used as an opportunity to teach the community about the importance of cooking and eating whole foods.
For more inspirational cafeterias, check out my growing Twitter list: School Food Programs to Watch.
How Meditation Helped My Middle School Classes
At first they were resistant. Ask a sixth grader to do something, and they might put up a fight. Ask them to sit there and do nothing, and they’ll look at you like you’ve lost your mind.
I tried all of the different methods of coercion: reasoning, scientific research, videos of meditation in the NBA. Finally, they started settling in. When I tried to read a script and guide them through the meditations myself, they giggled and accused me of using my “hippie voice," so we turned to Smiling Mind, an app that has free guided meditation programs broken down by age group and designed specifically for the classroom. My students decided that the guy’s cool Australian accent was much more soothing than mine (and I didn't mind, because it meant I got to meditate right along with them!)
We began this regular meditation practice in all of my middle school classes three years ago. For five minutes or so at the beginning of every other class, we dim the lights, find a comfortable seat, and just unwind for a bit. The shift in the classroom dynamics could almost be felt immediately, and over the years, my students and I have become more focused, centered, and engaged.
This year’s eighth graders are now in their third year of a regular meditation practice, so when it came time to write a column about how meditation has benefitted my students, I figured I should just go ahead and ask them. Rather than share their thoughts only with me, I had them use our class’s online discussion board, and their responses—as well as the corresponding ‘likes’ they received from each other—confirmed what I already knew; this seemingly small shift had become one of the most important of my teaching career.
Here’s what they had to say:
"When I'm feeling stressed out, meditation helps me calm down, take a step back, and look at the situation with more perspective." -Christine
"The benefits of meditation is that you can get super calm, you won’t get angry, you will calm down and you will forgive people, and lastly, you will be more creative." -Leo
"It's a way to get out of technology, social media, etc. Some time to spend with yourself." -Rachel
"To me, meditation is an escape from the world and I can focus on me instead of things that are worrying me." -Elena
Not only have they become more self-aware, but they’ve also become advocates for themselves, requesting meditation on days when they have big tests or presentations in other classes. I feel confident in knowing that they now have a healthy coping skill they can use even after they leave my classroom at the end of the year. In fact, as they were scrolling through each other’s comments and thoughts, one of them shut his laptop, turned to the rest of us and said, “Maybe we should give this to the high school principal. I hear they don’t have meditation up there, and I think we’re going to need it.”
For ideas on getting meditation into your class, check out How Can I Keep My Cool?
Share These Wise Words on Stress Management!
Editor's Note: In our September issue, we kicked off our brand new back-page advice column called Life Skills Made Easy. In it, we tackle a different question each month, sourced straight from our Teen Advisory Board members—or your students! (They can go here to submit their question.) The goal is to provide teens with the simple, doable strategies that will help them succeed in school and in life.
Teachers, I know you've been there, and so have your students: That moment when a list of seemingly small stressors—the pile of work, next period's exam, the fact that you forgot your lunch (again)—all compound to suddently send you straight into meltdown mode. Surely you've got your go-to coping strategies by now, but are your students equipped to stop a stress-storm in its tracks? Here at Choices, we believe having a stay-calm tactic is among the most essential of the essential life skills. (After all, it's the thing you have to be able to do before you can move on to other problem-solving strategies!) That's why we were thrilled when Luis, a high school senior in Texas, was brave enough to ask us for help as part of our October Life Skills Made Easy column.
Brainstorming the best experts for these columns has become a much anticipated activity for Team Choices, and this month, we couldn't stop thinking about all of the high-pressure situations that top-tier athletes encounter in competition. What do they do to snap back from anxiety? What's their secret weapon for staying calm and focused? These questions eventually led us to George Mumford, who many call the NBA's "mindfulness guru." His fantastic explanation of stress—and the easy mindfulness exercise that accompanies it—will give your students a brand new choice every time they feel overwhelmed!
P.S. We also whipped up this little sign featuring Mumford's Wise Words, which you can download for your classroom wall. (Visit this Ideabook post to also add our September poster—featuring Wise Words on Time Management—to your Gallery of Life Skills insight!)
4 Promises to My Students at the Start of a New Year
Every August, we teachers start out with new goals. Whether they’re personal or professional, a new year equals a fresh start, new students, and a chance to improve our craft. But, even with the best of intentions, these goals can get buried and pushed aside for other projects and obligations.
So this year, rather than set goals for myself, I’m going to remember what being a teacher is truly is about. I'm making some promises to my students instead.
1. I will assess and hand back your projects in less than a week.
This is a recurring goal for me, and one I can rarely stick to. With so many students and projects coming in at once, it’s difficult to thoroughly assess and return them in a timely fashion. But my vice principal always says that after a week, the power of feedback is lost. This makes sense. After all, when I submit work or send an email, I’m used to getting a response in a day or two, and if I don’t, I start to doubt the quality or content of my work. I would hate to cause my students—especially with their need for social media likes and instant gratification—to experience anxiety over quality work they’ve handed in. And as for the work that isn't the best quality, asking a student to re-do an assignment two weeks later—when we’ve already moved onto another unit—is rarely going to lead to improvement.
2. I will give you formative assessments so that no grade is a surprise.
Assessing and grading projects doesn’t take nearly as long if you’ve been actively involved throughout the whole process. When I do periodic check-ins and conferences with my students, I know where they’re succeeding and struggling, and more importantly, so do they. When it comes time to hand in their projects, they are aware of where they’re at, and I’m able to assess the final product and give them the grades they feel they deserve.
3. I will work with you to create projects that are current, relevant, and engaging.
It’s not easy updating curriculum as you go, but it’s also not easy to keep students engaged when you’re sticking to the same lessons and projects year after year. As a health teacher, it’s important that I stay on top of the latest news and ideas, and ask my students for their input along the way. In a subject as inherently personal as health, giving students "voice and choice" over what they learn takes on an even bigger sense of importance.
4. I will put you before my email and be waiting at the door when you arrive.
One week into school, and already it’s started. The endless barrage of emails… school events, new systems and initiatives, announcements, meetings, and messages from colleagues and friends. While important and often entertaining, checking email is not the main purpose of my job. I’m here for the students, and while it may be tempting to sneak a look at my computer as they shuffle between classes, the last thing I want them to see when they enter the room is the back of a computer screen. I’ll set aside time after they leave, but I won’t allow the distractions of my technology to pull me away from the present. Then, hopefully, I can expect the same from them.
Share These Wise Words on Time Management!
In our September issue, we’re kicking off a brand new back-page advice column called Life Skills Made Easy. In it, we’ll tackle a different question each month, sourced straight from the mouths of our Teen Advisory Board members—or your students! (They can go here to submit their question.) The answer will come from a unique, carefully selected expert each month, and the goal is to provide teens with the simple, doable strategies that will help them succeed in school and life—from balancing school and fun, to calming themselves down in a stressful moment, to dealing with difficult people!
This time around, we had a little fun with our go-to guru, leveraging some legendary advice from none other than President Dwight D. Eisenhower. His method of time management isn’t just a lesson in to-do lists; it’s a fairly straightforward way to teach your students to prioritize their tasks and goals. (Check out the story and teaching resources here!)
We also had our resident art director whip up this little sign featuring Eisenhower’s Wise Words, which you can download for your classroom. We’ll be doing the same every month, so check back to add to your gallery of life skills insight! We have no doubt your students will appreciate the inspiration.