Overweight children

The issue of children in our classes who are overweight may concern many of us, but taking the initiative can lead to even more problems. Leah Davies believes that rising rates of childhood obesity are a problem, which educators have a responsibility to address. Here she offers some practical advice.

A growing problem

With childhood obesity on the rise for both boys and girls, this children’s health problem should be of concern to educators. According to the United States Surgeon General’s report in 1999, 13% of children ages 6 to 11 years and 14% of adolescents ages 12 to 19 years in the United States were overweight. This percentage has more than doubled in the last twenty years.

Obese adolescents have a 70% chance of becoming overweight adults who have an increased risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, obstructive sleep apnea (interrupted breathing while asleep that can result in daytime lethargy or even death), reduced lifespan and some forms of cancer. Children with type 2 diabetes face a disabling disease with a future of health risks including eye, heart, and kidney damage, as well as poor circulation in the legs and feet. Not only are there critical physical consequences to childhood obesity, but overweight children often exhibit low self-esteem, depression and risky behavior as a result of being teased.

Although only medical professionals are qualified to determine whether a child’s weight is unhealthy, obesity is generally defined as being more than thirty percent above ideal body weight for a child’s height. In simple terms, obesity occurs when a person eats more calories than the body uses. However, the causes of obesity are complex and may include genetic, biological, behavioral and cultural factors.

Complex causes

There is no one cause of being overweight. Obesity in childhood is often related to:

  • eating habits
  • lack of physical activity
  • family history
  • medical illness
  • stress
  • emotional/social problems
  • genetics

As the abundance of high-caloric foods and a sedentary lifestyle impact our population, the imbalance between consumption and expenditure have led to an increase in adult and childhood obesity. A partial contributor to this problem in children is the lack of physical education in schools. Due to budget constraints and the push for higher test scores, many schools have eliminated physical education classes. Yet, most educators agree that learning in all areas is increased when physical instruction is included in the curriculum.

When school administrators rely on proceeds from soft drink and candy sales for needed funds, they contribute to the problem, as well. There is also a concern about the food served in school cafeterias.

Some schools have contracted with food chains to provide meals. However, most nutritionists would recommend lunch programs emphasizing fruits, vegetables, and whole grains rather than “fast food.”

What can educators do to promote a healthy diet in children?

Firstly, we should teach and model healthy living habits including eating nutritious foods, being physically active and avoiding drugs.

If no physical education is offered in your school, exercise, move to music or play active games with your students each day.

Encourage the students to be active by having them keep track of time spent doing physical activities.

Teach about nutritious foods and have the children keep a food diary to encourage them to make healthy eating choices.

Read stories or books about characters who model healthy living habits.

Help children understand that eating is not a cure for their emotional or social problems, but that discussing them or using other positive coping skills such as writing down feelings, listening to music, hugging a pet, exercising, etc. are more beneficial actions to take. For additional coping skills see one of my past articles, Helping Children Cope with Anger.

What specifically can educators do to help overweight children?

Focus on their positive qualities.

Do not embarrass them by calling attention to their weight.

Provide support and encouragement.

Seek help from other school personnel and/or meet with a parent to encourage him or her to consult a nutritionist or a physician concerning their child’s weight. Finally a meeting with parents might be needed, in which case careful preparation is necessary.


Click the picture to download a PDF of  Leah’s guidelines for conducting a parents’ meeting about an overweight child.



Leah Davies, M.Ed. 

Leah Davies received her Master’s Degree from the Department of Counseling and Counseling Psychology, Auburn University. Her professional experience of over 44 years includes teaching, counseling, consulting, instructing at Auburn University, and directing educational and prevention services at a mental health agency.

See more from Leah at her Kelly Bear resources website http://www.kellybear.com/

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