March 26, 2019

Childhood obesity often affects academic performance: now we may know why

by Hannah Erickson

CARBONDALE, Ill. — With rates of childhood obesity tripling in the United States over the last 40 years, researchers continue to find negative impacts beyond just long-term health. 

While current literature supports the idea that obesity does have some impact on student grades and academic success, new research from Southern Illinois University Carbondale finds a correlation that may point to the root problem.

Peer interaction affecting academic performance

When Jebaraj Asirvatham, assistant professor of agribusiness economics at SIU, and his fellow researchers from the University of Arkansas, first started looking at the issue of obesity and academics, several factors seemed to be in play.

“In many cases we see higher rates of teasing in obese children,” Asirvatham said. “This could put more psychological strain on them, along with causing social and behavioral problems.”

At the same time, other findings support the idea that physical activity increases brain function, which may be another factor in this question. Obese children tend to be less involved in active behaviors, which could affect their cognitive reasoning skills, Asirvatham explained.

However, after conducting research on K-12 children in Arkansas, the team believes the reduced academic performances stems from poor relationships and peer interaction.

The whole pattern seems to be a bit of a circle, Asirvatham explained. Obese children tend to be less physically active, which affects peer interaction and their ability to play with other children – in effect negatively impacting social bonding. This social issue often causes fewer healthy interactions.

Stigmas are the key problem, not cognitive ability

While stigmas do not always manifest as obvious bullying, they still play a part in a child’s security and confidence. Whenever a behavior or feature becomes normal, stigmas often lessen. This seems to be the case for childhood obesity as well.

“What we find is as the percentage of obese kids increase, the negative effect on their performance goes down,” Asirvatham said. “This means that when more kids become obese, it becomes more normalized and the negative impact reduces.”

These findings suggest the lower academic performance stems from psychological, behavioral and social factors, rather than a decrease in overall cognitive ability. The teasing and exclusion has the core impact on the child, while the obesity is just the beginning reason for the stigma.

When the researchers tested the same data on overweight kids who did not look visibly different from normal weight children, the results showed nothing. This again supports the idea that reduced performance is stigma based, and not reflective of a child’s potential or ability.

Practical implications for educators and parents

As one of the first groups to look beyond the correlation between childhood obesity and lowered academic performance, this research offers practical assistance and insight to current educators and parents.

When teachers recognize children who seem to be more reserved, isolated or stigmatized, taking active steps to integrate the child into the classroom can help their overall performance.

“If teachers see a few kids in class who aren’t participating and interacting, they shouldn’t assume it is just a personality difference,” Asirvatham said. “Rather, they can encourage the kids to participate and build those peer relationships.”

Another beneficial option is to add non-physical activities to the classroom schedule, to include the students who may not feel as comfortable in an active setting, Asirvatham suggested. This helps to reduce the stigma for these children and limit the psychological impact on them. While these steps may not change everything for a child, teachers can start with controlling the environment in the classroom.

One of Asirvatham’s goals was to make this research accessible, basic and practical for the teachers. The concepts are easily implementable without assessments or trainings, he explained. The key is to recognize when a child is struggling, and then offer them the best support possible.

“Fostering peer relationships is key for the child’s learning,” Asirvatham said. “This helps to reduce loneliness, depression and isolation.”