Why Food Rewards are Bad for Kids (& Ideas for Healthy Classroom Alternatives)
|May 1, 2014||Posted by Stacy under Food rewards, Junk food in school|
The other day, my second grader held up a foil-wrapped chocolate and announced, “Mom!! Last week, Mrs. Z (his teacher) gave me this for being a good listener.” Then he added, “And the week before, I got a Hershey’s Kiss for finishing my work on time!”
While I love that he’s being recognized for good behavior, it irked me to hear about the candy. Sure, it’s only a couple small pieces. But my issue isn’t calories or the sugar left coating his teeth. It’s about what it teaches him about food. Eat junk to reward yourself for a job well done or an emotional pick-me-up. Eat it because it’s there, even if you aren’t hungry. Value it more than fresh fruits, veggies and other healthy foods that will nourish his body.
At our school, there are a handful of teachers known as the “candy teachers.” They use sugary treats–typically something small like a Jolly Rancher or a Tootsie Roll–to motivate students. But these candy handouts aren’t the only junk food rewards provided to my son and other students in our district. Pizza, ice cream, banana splits, and root beer floats are some of the examples that I can think of. (And, of course, they pale in comparison to the weekly 12-ounce can of Coke and full-sized bag of gummi bears combo described by Bettina Siegel of The Lunch Tray.)
I can understand why many teachers and schools do it. Junk food rewards are easy and cheap, and kids like them. A lot of people see them as harmless, but unfortunately, they aren’t. That’s why leading medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Mayo Clinic, say not to do it.
Over the years at home, I’ve refrained from using food as a reward. I didn’t feed my kids M&Ms for potty training. I don’t promise them ice cream for behaving at the doctor’s office or for finishing their homework. So it’s all that much more upsetting to have it happening at school, where kids should learn about how to be healthy–not develop a messed-up relationship with food.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO
Based on the feedback that I’ve received from readers, food rewards are a big issue with many parents. Unfortunately, it can be a tough one to tackle, as the practice is so common and ingrained. Many educators just don’t see the problem with a little sugar if it helps get kids excited to learn. And no one wants to make life any harder for overworked teachers.
In Just Say NO to Food Rewards at School: A Must-Read Guide for Parents, I offer tips for addressing the problem at your school. While I think the advice is solid, I haven’t (YET!) succeeded in getting my school district to outlaw the practice. When I talked to my school principal about it, he told me that he didn’t see a problem with giving kids a Jolly Rancher or other small piece of candy as an extrinsic motivator. I sent him links to several different resources that explain the downsides but he wouldn’t budge. And administrators at the district level weren’t willing to make a definitive stand in our school district wellness policy, either.
That said, I think it may just be a matter of time–and education. If you’re looking for ammo, give your school principal a copy of The Use of Food as Reward in Classrooms: The Disadvantages and the Alternatives (while geared toward the state of Kentucky, a national version of this excellent white paper is in the works–so stay tuned!). Ask if copies of the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Constructive Classroom Rewards can be distributed to teachers and other school staff. Find a local physician or registered dietitian who supports your views and ask your school if he or she can come give a talk. Pinpoint other parents who don’t want their kids to be rewarded with junk food–and approach school officials as a group. Even many school nurses and other health professionals aren’t aware of the potential harm of rewarding kids with food, so GET THE WORD OUT!!
While many teachers in my district are still doling out candy and other junk, I have seen individual efforts to switch gears. Earlier this school year, a local high school teacher approached me looking for an idea for a healthy post-exam reward for her students. In the past, she treated them to a pizza party. But after learning the facts about food rewards, she was eager to find another option. I sent her a list of ideas, but she ended up coming up with one on her own. She took them to play basketball. The kids’ reaction? “They absolutely LOVED it!!” she gushed afterward.
It may take some creativity, but we can find ways to motivate students without giving them candy and other junk. Question is, are we willing to try?!?
MORE INFO IN HEALTHY REWARDS
Healthy Non-Food Rewards (from Action for Healthy Kids)
Alternatives to Food Rewards (from Connecticut State Department of Education)
Are your kids rewarded with junk food at school? How do you feel about it? Here’s your chance to speak your mind! Scroll down to leave a comment. And thanks for coming by!
Photo credit: Michael Savino via Flickr