How does hunger impact on children’s learning?

Author: Dr Jane Watson
Accredited Practising Dietitian

When your children are hungry, you’ll know about it, but how much will it affect them? Research* has found that on a typical school day, three students in every class arrive at school hungry and this has short- and long-term impacts on health and education.

A study by Foodbank surveyed over 500 primary and secondary school teachers across metropolitan and rural areas in Australia. The teachers observed that students who skipped breakfast had low energy levels & difficulty concentrating. Also, 1 in 4 teachers said these students are also more likely to experience poor health and be sick more often than other students.

Not only did hunger increase poor health but most teachers reported that their workload increased. Students that are hungry are more likely to find it difficult to concentrate (73%), can be lethargic (66%), have learning difficulties (54%) and exhibit behavioural problems (52%). As a result, it made it harder for teachers to perform their role effectively.

Scientific research from around the world repeatedly shows that eating breakfast has positive effects on learning and behaviour. Children who eat breakfast are more likely to:

  • do better at school
  • meet their daily nutritional needs
  • maintain a healthy weight
  • attend school more frequently
  • behave better at school and get along with their peers.

Why is breakfast good for children?

Numerous studies have confirmed that eating breakfast improves learning, but if breakfast is to be not-negotiable for children, how do we support them in eating breakfast? Most parents already know that eating a healthy breakfast is good for children, but putting it into
practice can seem difficult. Don’t underestimate the power of parental role modelling and family routines in helping children eat breakfast.

How can we help our children eat breakfast?

Role modelling

Modelling the behaviours we want to see in our children is an important first step. If we want our children to eat breakfast, we need to be eating breakfast ourselves. Children are highly effective hypocrite detectors and will rightly ask, ‘Why should I have to eat breakfast if you don’t?’

Mealtime routines

Provide children with a regular, predictable rhythm for eating. Take a look at the morning: does it allow time for breakfast, or does the rush and chaos take over? It is worth stepping through exactly how the time in the morning is spent and what could change in order to establish a routine that allows for breakfast. Not allowing TV or other screens in the morning, making lunches the night before and ensuring an early bedtime all help to create time for breakfast. Again, it doesn’t have to happen all at once. Start by practising a component of your preferred morning routine (for example getting up ten minutes earlier than usual) a few times a week.

Involving children

Creating hands-on involvement with food preparation is a great way to increase a child’s interest in eating it. This involvement can range from helping with cooking and serving meals as well as decisions about buying food. Shopping with children can be demanding but offering them controlled choices can help children feel like they are the ones making the decisions. You could ask, for example, ‘Would you like Weet-Bix or porridge?’ or ‘Would you like a banana or an orange?’ or ‘Would you like vanilla or strawberry yoghurt?’.

Breakfast ideas for kids

Keep it simple! Breakfast doesn’t have to be a gourmet affair. Some ideas are:

  • Breakfast cereal + milk
  • Fruit
  • Yoghurt
  • Toast with a spread or cheese or baked beans
  • Fruit smoothie
  • A glass of milk

If you are concerned about what your child is (or isn’t) eating, make an appointment with an Accredited Practising Dietitian that specialises in infant and child nutrition.

* http://www.foodbank.org.au/2015/05/27/foodbank-finds-aussie-school-kids-missing-most-important-meal

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