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Stigma from obesity affects achievement

[This article originally appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of the New York Teacher.]

Research showing that obese children perform below normal-weight peers on math and reading assessments has attributed the cause to health issues linked to obesity. But a new study finds that the social stigma suffered by obese children may affect their academic performance. The research published in Child Development found that math achievement among obese children in elementary school varies depending on when the child became obese and whether it has affected the child’s social and emotional functioning.

Researchers Sara Gable of the University of Missouri, Jennifer L. Krull of the University of California and Yiting Chang of the University of Vermont tracked more than 6,000 elementary school students from kindergarten through 5th grade. Each child was assigned to one of three weight-status categories: persistently obese — those who were obese from kindergarten or 1st grade through 5th grade; later-onset obesity — those who became obese in 3rd grade or later with the condition persisting through 5th grade; and those who were never obese. The children were also rated on their social skills with peers and their emotional behaviors, such as whether they exhibited anxiety, sadness, loneliness or low self-esteem.

Math achievement among the persistently obese children in 1st through 5th grade was significantly below that of children who had never been obese. Among later-onset obese children, math performance varied by gender, with only the girls exhibiting lower results compared to children who had never been obese.

The researchers found that emotional behaviors explained part of the link between obesity and lower math performance. Among the persistently obese children, boys in 3rd and 5th grades showed negative emotional behaviors that could affect academic achievement, and girls showed such behaviors as early as 1st grade. Girls in both the persistently obese and later-onset groups also showed weaker social skills, although this was not true for boys in these groups

The researchers suggest that the cumulative stress of being a member of a stigmatized group can interfere with academic performance, student engagement and cooperative classroom behavior. They recommend that school staffs and health professionals who work with obese children consider the social and emotional strain the children may be under.