How Do We Protect Our Kids From Being Judged For Their Weight?

sharma-obesity-pima-indian-kidsIf the lively response to last week’s post on the question of whether or not Sarah Hoffman is qualified to serve as Alberta’s health minister based on how people judge her size teaches us anything, it sure makes eviden the simple-minded thinking about obesity that is so pervasive in our society (thanks to all my bold readers, who stepped in to share their stories).

The problem, however, is not just that adults get judged by the general public (who may be forgiven for their ignorance) – the problem goes much deeper.

Thus, a study by Kenney and colleagues from the Harvard School of Public Health, published in the International Journal of Obesity, shows that worse educational outcomes for children living with obesity may be simply due to how teachers perceive them, rather than their objective performance.

The study includes 3362 children participating in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K), who were studied longitudinally from fifth to eighth grade.

While an increase in BMI z-scores (a measure of childhood weight gain) from 5th to 8th grade showed no association to actual academic ability in standardized test scores, teacher’s perceived kids with higher BMI z-scores as to be poorer at math and in reading.

Interestingly, it was not just the teachers who rated heaver kids as poorer students, the larger students rated themselves as being less capable than they actually were – perhaps a reflection of how their teachers’ attitude towards them was reflected in their self-worth.
Here is how the researchers put it rather bluntly,

“From 5th to 8th grade, increase in BMI z-score was significantly associated with worsening teacher perceptions of academic ability for both boys and girls, regardless of objectively measured ability (standardized test scores).”

The implications of this finding are self-evident.

If teachers, who should know better, misjudge academic ability based on kids body weights (despite the lack of difference in objective tests), which in turn leads the kids to have less confidence in their own abilities, it is easy to see how this may well set them off on a trajectory leading to lower academic performance and thus a less bright start – a self-fulfilling prophecy, if I ever saw one.

Even if we do not care about adults being judged or discriminated against because of their size (and we should), the fact that our kids are also being judged by their teachers, who should know better, must set off all kinds of alarm bells.

Have you experienced weight-bias or discrimination in educational settings? I’d love to hear your story.

Edmonton, AB