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Overweight Kids Lag in Early School Years

Home Environment Key to Overweight Kids' School Woes
By
WebMD Health News

Jan. 30, 2004 -- Overweight kids suffer. Their health suffers. Their self-esteem suffers. And new research shows their schoolwork suffers as well.

Problems typically start when an overweight kid enters kindergarten, a RAND study shows. Ashlesha Datar, PhD, and colleagues analyzed data from a U.S. Department of Education study tracking a nationally representative sample of 11,192 kids who started kindergarten in 1998.

Some of the kids were overweight. This means that based on their height and weight, they were more massive than 95% of other kids their age. If they were adults, they would be called obese. But researchers don't use that word when they're talking about kids.

Datar found that when they started school, the overweight children scored significantly lower on tests of verbal and math skills. They did learn at pretty much the same rate as other children. But at the end of first grade, the overweight children still lagged well behind their less heavy peers.

"What we find is most of this is explained by sociological factors," Datar tells WebMD. "The overweight kids tend to come from poorer families with not-so-educated mothers. So when we control for these factors, this relationship between overweight and poor academic performance gets wiped out."

Datar and colleagues report their findings in the January issue of Obesity Research.

Family Factors

Being very much overweight, Datar says, is what researchers call a marker for family factors that are truly behind kids doing less well in school. But that doesn't mean that obesity isn't a problem.

"If you're an overweight kid, your friends don't understand you aren't doing well because you don't have a mother who can read to you at home," Datar notes. "In kindergarten, your friends see you as fat and performing low. There may be some social stigma."

It's a tricky problem. Targeting a child's weight isn't going to solve the problem.

"If you change kids' overweight status, you are not going to make them do better at school," Datar says. "Other interventions that get to these family characteristics might do more."

Nancy Cahir, PhD, an Atlanta-based child and family psychologist, sees obesity in children as a sign of parental neglect.

"Usually if the kid is overweight there is a cluster of stuff going on: depression, family problems, parents who aren't listening to the kid's needs," Cahir tells WebMD. "When you're seeing kids get overweight it's a sign their parents aren't watching out that they eat proper foods, that they get more exercise, that they watch less television. It is a case of parents ignoring kids emotional needs."

How to Help

Help for these children, Datar says, has to start at home. A focus on the child's home environment will do more than a focus on the child's weight.

"If you want to find a helpful intervention, go back to the home," she says. "We want to say, 'Read more to your kids, provide a more enriching home environment.' Obesity is just a marker that these things are missing."

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