This fall, parents in some parts of the nationwill receive letters from their child’s schoolsaying their child is too heavy. This is meant tobe a prevention and education tactic to combatthe increasing number of children with or at riskfor conditions like type 2, but it is raising many aneyebrow.
The National Institutes of Health estimates thatover 15 percent of young people, ages 6 to 19,are overweight. In some states, the percentage ismuch higher.
Although these numbers are frightening andalthough this interest in prevention is necessary,we must ask: Is it the responsibility of schools tomeasure and report on child health?
Could Lead to Discrimination and Profiling
There are several issues to consider here. One ofthe biggest is how this information is going toreach parents. Some schools propose includingBMI information on report cards.
While this method may save schools the cost ofextra printing and postage, it raises a great dealof concern. Do parents really want their child’spersonal health information and identifiers puton permanent school records? This could lead toforms of discrimination and profiling.
We must also consider data collection andconsistency. Is it possible to make sure theinformation is gathered correctly and uniformlyacross the nation? Like recent challenges to BMIaccuracy for athletes, BMI scores have been foundto be inappropriate measures for some childrenbecause of confounding factors like puberty andgrowth spurts.
Also cause for pause, the potential psychologicalramifications this information gathering couldhave on youth. We need to make sure that in ourquest for prevention we are not exacerbatingother problems like low self-esteem and negativeself-perception.
Finally, what about the back-end of this issue?What do schools and governments really want toaccomplish by this data collection? If the answeris prevention, which I suspect it is, could there bea better way?
It seems to me that schools have another partto play in this crisis. That role is to both controlthe school environment and teach healthbasics to youth instead of measuring andpotentially humiliating students through suchmeasurements.
For starters, how about reinstating daily physicaleducation? Why not provide healthier lunches,breakfasts and school vending options?
These seem to be better options to affect long-termchange.
Health Education First
Before measuring students, let’s try areinvigorated approach to health education,including lessons on choice and decision making.In this, schools could make recommendationsto families about BMI-type measurements—educating the students and care-givers about standards to be discussed with their choice ofmedical professional.
The American Diabetes Association and theAmerican Academy of Pediatrics haveresponded to this issue with a messageof support for better health communicationand education. Some of their suggestions are:
- Offering healthy snacks
- Drinking fewer sodas
- Limit television, video games and computer time
- Exercising with the family
- Modeling good health behavior—doing group activities with parent and teacher involvement.