We’ve all heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day but given the choice between waking up earlier to put a nutritious breakfast together and spending an extra 20 minutes between the sheets, many of us opt for the extra 20 minutes kip.

But a healthy start to the day really is important and there is an ever-growing body of research emphasising the benefits of having a nutritious breakfast.

Research from the US estimates that students who eat breakfast everyday score on average 17% higher on Mathematics tests and are 20% more likely to graduate than students who regularly skip breakfast.

In the UK, a comprehensive literature review by a research unit from Leeds University concluded that nutritious breakfasts have beneficial effects on student performance and behaviour in both the short and long term. The report also concluded that children who skip breakfast had more difficulty concentrating in class and focusing on tasks.

Students that are easily distracted are more likely to be disruptive and classroom behaviour issues have also been linked to poor nutrition.

Tired and sluggish

If you work in a school, the chances are that you have seen these effects firsthand. Chaz an experienced young learners teacher at Varee School explains – ‘Those children who have eaten breakfast are certainly more attentive and engaged in lessons, those who have not eaten breakfast are usually sluggish, respond less and actually look physically tired.

Then there are sometimes a minority of children who have been given pocket money and spend it on sweets/candy first thing in the morning. These children are restless, hyperactive and find it hard to remain on task.

I sincerely believe that eating breakfast benefits not only the pupils but also the teachers in that the children who have had breakfast are much easier to teach than those who have not eaten breakfast.

The problem can be severely confounded when children with lower academic ability consistently miss breakfast as this makes learning for them even more challenging……”

An ideal breakfast includes a variety of foods including fruit, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy products. In reality most students aren’t going to have such a well-balanced breakfast everyday but it’s important they know what a good breakfast is and they recognize the importance of making a healthy start to the day.

Sugary breakfasts, while better than no breakfast, should also be discouraged because they are likely to result in the student having an energy boost early morning before running out of steam well before lunch.

Leading the way

In the UK the link between morning nutrition and performance in school is so well accepted that many schools now provide free breakfasts to students.

Breakfast clubs are run at 85% of UK schools with the Kellogg’s Breakfast Club Trust supporting 1,000 Breakfast Clubs

Another organization, Magic Breakfast, serves free breakfasts to 8,000 students every morning. Welsh authorities have gone one better by committing to provide free breakfasts to all school students. Unfortunately, these policies are yet to catch on in Asia’s developing nations.

Nutrition has a huge impact on children’s school performance and mental development. In Thailand’s rural communities poor nutrition is inhibiting the physical and mental development of thousands of students. Nutrient deficiencies have also been linked to Thailand’s falling IQ levels and its mental health crisis.

If free breakfasts were made available to underprivileged school students, it could improve the quality of life for thousands.

Of course this is a huge social issue that requires massive resources and a genuine commitment from the Health Department and Ministry of Education – not something the humble classroom teacher could manage. But on the local level, within the classroom, individual teachers may be able to make a small difference with their students.

A teacher’s ability to promote healthy eating habits depends largely on their role within the school. Homeroom teachers are best placed to encourage their students to adopt healthy habits.

Opportunity

Morning registration is a good opportunity to discuss breakfast. Teacher Dale a Grade 6 Homeroom Teacher at Varee School explained an approach he’s adopted. ‘Be a good role model to your students before requesting their participation in eating healthy. Let them see you drink loads of water and snack on fruits and vegetables during break.

Build a classroom culture that all pupils can participate in regardless of their social or economic upbringing. One way of doing this is by asking them if they chose to drink water rather than a fruit drink. This helps to engage all the students in a discussion before asking them to share what they ate for breakfast, which can then be quickly compared and contrasted between peers.

Be genuinely interested in their food choices, and make an effort to mention them to their parents whenever the opportunity is available.

Finally, have the students ask family members what they have been drinking and eating for breakfast. Have them report back with their findings and see if there is progress over the semester.’

Healthy discussion

ESL Teachers that regularly teach the same classes also have opportunities to discuss nutrition. The topic of food comes up in pretty much every ESL course I’ve even seen – and food is one topic that Thai’s love talking about.

Discussing the nutritional benefits of a healthy diet and having student comment on each other’s eating habits could make a productive extension activity.

I teach lower Mathayom and I try to encourage my students to have a decent breakfast by keeping the topic within the classroom dialogue. Simply telling teenagers they must have a good breakfast isn’t going to work.

On mornings when a class is sluggish I’ll ask them whether they’d all skipped breakfasts – and on occasions when a particular student is outshining their classmates I may comment that this individual had obviously had a champion’s breakfast that morning.

In the run up to tests, I’ll advise students to revise over the weekend and ensure they have a decent breakfast on test morning – cramming till late at night and then waking up late for school is not a recipe for success.

By keeping the importance of good nutrition on the agenda, teachers can make a difference. A school’s hidden curriculum, ‘those things pupils learn through the experience of attending school’, is usually used to enforce conformity and submissive behaviour but it can also be used to promote positive habits – and that’s something even the humble classroom teacher can contribute towards.

Originally published on 10th July 2015 at Ajarn.com

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Daniel is an English Literature graduate from the University of London who has spent the past 20 years living and working in Southeast Asia. Passionate about education, health care, sustainable development, equality and human rights, Daniel is a regular contributor to Asian Correspondent, Ajarn, The Educator and Bangkok Post.

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