A child’s diet affects academic achievement at school


What children eat has a huge impact on their academic success. While this fact is well known to academic researchers, teachers, and administrators, the importance of nutrition and its role in supporting student academic success generally takes a back seat to other school-related variables.

For example, a recent report by a prominent education publisher on the causes of the persistent achievement gaps between students of color and white students failed to mention the disproportionate availability and consumption of healthy foods among disadvantaged students on socio-economically and economically well-off students. Instead, the authors explicitly attributed persistent achievement gaps to inequitable levels of school funding, unequal distribution of highly qualified and experienced teachers, lack of culturally appropriate instruction and curriculum, low expectations abilities of minority students, implicit biases and limited life experiences outside of school. .

While important, these factors are only part of the story.

As Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “An army marches on its belly”. In other words, soldiers must eat well if they want to perform their duties well. Napoleon’s maxim also applies to millions of children in American public schools.

This case of ninth grader Ross Williams is just one example of millions of starved children in America.

Ross, who was enrolled at the school where I worked as dean of students, came to my attention when several of his teachers complained about his irregular attendance, erratic mood swings, lethargy, lack of attention and motivation in class and missed homework. He failed nearly all of his classes, and his standardized test scores were well below average. Attempts to meet Ross’s mother – who was unemployed, on food stamps and a chronic alcoholic – repeatedly failed.

Desperate to find help for Ross, I asked Child Protective Services to investigate Ross’ family life. In the end, when it came to daily meals, Ross had to fend for himself. The only foods available at home were processed carbohydrates, high levels of sugar and saturated fat, and low protein (eg, CoCo Puffs, pizza, ice cream, Oreos, and other snack foods). Investigators also found sugary sodas but no milk.

Although Ross participated in the federally funded school lunch program, it simply wasn’t enough to support him physically, cognitively and emotionally. Ironically, Ross was also obese. Yet it wasn’t a lack of food that contributed to Ross’ problems at school, but a lack of nutritionally rich foods.

Ross’s story is not aberrant. According to the US Department of Agriculture, approximately 13 million children live in “food insecure” homes that lack sufficient amounts of nutritious food for every family member to lead a healthy life. Not surprisingly, the majority of food insecure children are children of color from poor households.

The effects of food insecurity on schoolchildren can be severe. A National Institute of Health Sciences study found that malnourished children are much more likely to suffer from permanent deficits in cognitive abilities, including working memory, critical thinking, problem solving, reading, attention and concentration and overall academic ability. Additionally, they struggle more with visuomotor tracking (for example, when vision and movement work together to produce actions), verbal intelligence, and lower overall IQ.

According to nutritionists Elizabeth Prado and Kathryn Dewey, “The well-nourished child is better able to interact with their caregivers and environment in a way that provides them with the experiences necessary for optimal brain development. Children who are not properly nourished are at risk of not reaching their developmental potential in terms of cognitive, motor and social-emotional skills. These abilities are strongly linked to academic achievement and economic productivity.

Much of the national discourse on “good schools” is obsessed with student performance on standardized tests. However, the qualities of a school (for example, its teachers, curriculum, management systems, and test scores) explain only part of what students learn and how much.

Stephen Davis is a career educator who writes a column that runs every other Wednesday in the Daily Republic. Contact him by email at [email protected].


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