The study says parents, educators working together can make a difference

A comprehensive study on school-based health promotion efforts nationwide released last week by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows that parents and teachers are interested in working collaboratively to provide healthier choices for children at school. The report also found that schools and communities can change the way children eat and move, but it takes a lot of work.

The report, called “Making the Grade,” surveyed more than 1,500 parents and guardians, 3,000 teachers and 500 school health coordinators nationally about their views on what works best in schools to promote healthy eating and physical activity among students.

The research was conducted by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.

“The majority of parents and teachers in the survey said their schools do a somewhat or very good job at promoting healthy eating,” says Dr. Kris Bosworth, a member of the UNC research team. “Parents even said they were more likely to work with their child’s school to change classroom or cafeteria food offerings if they have a positive relationship with the teacher. Parental involvement is crucial, and schools are increasingly recognizing that.”

Still, other parents said schools do not promote healthy eating enough. And, only about half of the 1,500 parents surveyed fully agree that their child’s school provides healthy food choices.

Among the findings, the report revealed that parents are more likely to take action when they have a positive relationship with their child’s teacher or school health coordinator. For example, 60 percent of parents said they would work to change something in their child’s classroom if their child’s teacher also supported it, and 42 percent said they would work with their child’s school if it had a health coordinator.

The report states that parents want to learn how to help their children be healthier, but many do not know where to go for information. There also are barriers in place for some parents who may not speak English or cannot afford the lifestyle changes recommended by education professionals.

Parents identified both positive and negative influences in their communities that influence the way children eat and move. They cited convenience stores, vending machines, media messages, friends and family as factors that encourage unhealthy eating or lack of physical activity.

“As educators continue to implement strategies to promote healthy lifestyles among students, they must consider parents’ perspectives,” says Bosworth. “One thing we found is that there’s a lot of potential for schools and community organizations to work together to provide healthy choices.”

Among those who responded, 90 percent of teachers and health coordinators said they wanted more training in what food and drinks are sold at schools. More than 70 percent said schools do not serve enough nutritious food options. Teachers and health coordinators also said they needed more help to encourage children to be physically active and eat healthier.

The report includes a number of recommendations for school-based health professionals on how to incorporate parents into their activities while respecting cultural differences, such as learning about different languages and cultures and sharing information in different formats. 

Here are some suggestions on how do schools promote healthy eating?

Educate Families About School Meal Programs

Schools play an important role in shaping lifelong healthy eating habits by offering nutritious meals through federal child nutrition programs. Parents should be included in discussions about how to improve school meal programs.

Health care professionals

Health care professionals, schools and other community partners should educate parents on the benefits of these programs and help them overcome cultural or language barriers to enroll their children. There is great potential for schools and child nutrition program operators to work together. 

Provide Parents with Resources and Material

Schools can help parents by providing handouts, and other printed material in the languages parents speak. Schools should also provide answers to parenting questions such as how to introduce new foods, avoid picky eating behavior and encourage physical activity. 

Promote Parent Involvement

Parents may take a more proactive role when they have a positive relationship with their child’s teacher or health coordinator. Schools should consider engaging parents through visits, lectures and conferences that address nutrition and physical activity issues.

Give Students Enough Time to Eat School Meals 

It’s important for students to have enough time to eat, socialize, and enjoy their meals. Research has shown that students are more likely to eat a school meal or taste a new food if they have at least 15 minutes for lunch.