Learning Environments and Student Diet
By Cayt Mirra
One element of the learning environment that students bring into the classroom is their diet, which can significantly affect their learning. As teachers, it is imperative that we understand the diet factors that may impact learning, such as if a student has eaten breakfast, if they have been consuming sugary drinks, and what they had for lunch. Graham, Berman and Bellert (2015) state that “as students grow and develop, they learn how to regulate their physical body, becoming more adept with self-care, ensuring their physical needs are met or managed” but this is not always the case, and some students, for a myriad of reasons, do not prioritise self-care, or have the resources to ensure they are eating well.
External influences play a role in shaping our desire, as well as our ability, to learn. Find out more about the psychology behind this here (Martin, 2013):
Can diet really alter learning outcomes? To answer this we must consider the nature of learning. Vygotsky states that “environmental and/or cultural influences” assist in “understanding the development of neurological structures responsible for higher-level mental abilities, such as abstraction, memory, and attention” (Goldstein, Naglieri, Princiotta & Otero, 2014), suggesting that influences in the external environment, such as diet, can be important for the development of young brains. A study of 161 Finnish children found that “healthier diet … in Grade 1 was associated with better reading skills, but not with arithmetic skills, among children in Grades 1-3” (Haapala, Eloranta, Venäläinen, Jalkanen, Poikkeus, Ahonen, & … Lakka, 2017), suggesting that the possible academic impacts of diet can be long lasting in some areas.
Diet can also impact disposition. Another study (Golley, Baines, Bassett, Wood, Pearce & Nelson, 2010) hypothesised that improved diet would improve behaviour and concentration in a classroom environment, and it tested this using control schools and schools with a healthy diet intervention. The study found that teacher-pupil on-task engagement was 3.4 times more likely in the intervention schools, suggesting the power of diet to impact our classroom environments. Hattie (2014) researched the way time is used in the classroom. Hattie lists threats to engaged time as including boredom and fatigue, both of which can be affected by diet. Whether due to hunger, a lack of nutrition, or too much sugar, irregularities in a student’s diet can have a tangible impact on what that student brings to the learning environment.
Part of this is controlled in their homes. Some students are given breakfast every morning, some get up early to make their own, some stop at McDonalds on the way to school, and some have nothing. Some students may also not have been given dinner the night before. For some students, disordered eating can also be a factor in their diet, and these students may find it very difficult to concentrate in class. In extreme cases like this, the classroom teacher may need to work with the school’s welfare team to come up with some support strategies.
There are also elements of the school environment that impact student diet. Our Health curriculum explicitly teaches healthy eating. Many schools run a breakfast club to encourage students to eat in the mornings. School canteens can present students with good and bad food choices. I remember my outrage as a teacher when I realised that my school canteen had a special on Coca Cola for exam week. I often see students come into class after lunch with sugary frozen drinks. Diet has proven effects on concentration, and a poor diet could explain many of the behavioural issues we often see in classrooms. Knowing this, why do schools continue to sell such high-sugar foods?
The physical learning environment can also contribute. Does the school have a policy about food and drink in classrooms? Are students encouraged to have water bottles? Are drinking taps installed? Schools need to create an environment where students are encouraged to surround themselves with healthy food that will sustain their concentration throughout the school day.
So as teachers, what more can we do? The NSW government lists some helpful tips here (Healthy Kids, 2018):
When considering the ways that the students shape our learning environments, we must understand the way that their behaviour and learning potential are shaped by what they eat. We need to be doing more to encourage healthy eating for the sake of student learning.
Goldstein, S., Naglieri, J., Princiotta, D. and Otero, T., (2014). Introduction: A history of executive functioning as a theoretical and clinical construct. In Goldstein, S. & Naglieri, J (Eds.), Handbook of Executive Functioning. New York, NY: Springer Science & Business Media.
Golley, R., Baines, E., Bassett, P., Wood, L., Pearce, J., & Nelson, M. (2010). School lunch and learning behaviour in primary schools: an intervention study. European Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, 64(11), 1280-1288. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2010.150
Graham, L., Berman, J. & Bellert, A. (2015). Sustainable learning: Inclusive practices for 21st century classrooms. Melbourne, Victoria: Cambridge University Press. Chapter 2: Learning processes.
Haapala, E., Eloranta, A., Venäläinen, T., Jalkanen, H., Poikkeus, A., Ahonen, T., & … Lakka, T. (2017). Diet quality and academic achievement: a prospective study among primary school children. European Journal Of Nutrition, 56(7), 2299-2308.
Hattie (2014), Chapter 5: Time as a global indicator of classroom learning, in Visible learning and the science of how we learn, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 36-43.
Healthy Kids (2018). School and Healthy Kids. Retrieved from https://www.healthykids.nsw.gov.au/home/fact-sheets/schools-and-healthy-kids.aspx
Martin, A. (2013). From will to skill: The psychology of motivation, instruction and learning in today’s classroom. Retrieved from https://www.psychology.org.au/inpsych/2013/december/martin/