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I feel very lucky to Chair the West Vancouver School District Comprehensive School Health Committee.  I have written (here) about this group before and a presentation we heard this fall from the McCreary Centre Society.   Our committee includes students, parents, teachers, administrators, support staff, the District of West Vancouver and a number of key personnel from Vancouver Coastal Health.  We had another excellent session today and one topic emerged that clearly merits more discussion.

There have been amazing changes in our schools over the last five years when it comes to healthy choices and healthy eating.  The Guidelines for Food and Beverage Sales in BC Schools have eliminated the sale of unhealthy foods and beverages in schools.  While, from time-to-time, groups need reminders about alternatives to cupcake sales, students in our secondary schools now, will never know a time when vending machines were stocked with Kit Kats and Coca Cola.  We have proudly been leaders with this work, and have exceptionally supportive schools and parents, supported by Kathy Romses, a Community Dietitian with Vancouver Coastal Health, and a provincial leader in the area.

The discussion today focussed on: while we have made great progress with food sales, candy is still widely being used as a reward.  The word “rampant” was used to describe the use of candy as a reward for good work, on-task behaviour, among a host of other reinforcements in classrooms.  The consensus of the group was we need to address this.  Parents are frustrated that while they are promoting healthy choices, some schools are giving mixed messages. The guidelines do speak to selling food items only, so it does seem to send a mixed message.

I think there are a couple of approaches to this.  First, there is the issue of the use of extrinsic motivators with everything we read from respected professionals like Alfie Kohn who argues:

More than 70 studies have found that the more you reward people for doing something, the more they lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. It’s not just that rewards are ineffective over the long haul; it’s that they are actively counterproductive.

There is also the recent thinking of Daniel Pink in Drive, where he writes about what motivates us (this RSA Video below is well worth 11 minutes of your time if you have not seen it):

Even if we don’t look at the issue of motivation, there is the health issue of using candy as a reward.  As Kathy Romses points out, food rewards connect food to mood and encourage rewarding or comforting oneself with food and eating when you’re not hungry; long-term eating patterns are often carried into adulthood; sticky or foods high in sugar cause tooth decay; using unhealthy foods as a reward sends a mixed message about healthy eating.

Okay, great, but what are teachers (and for that matter, parents) suppose to do?  Kathy, as shared in her VCH document, Healthier Rewards, also has a series of suggestions if you are looking for extrinsic non-food rewards.

  • Class or group field trip
  • School supplies (e.g. pencils, pens, marker, post-it notes, white out, bookmark)
  • Certificate of recognition
  • Activity items (e.g. jump rope, Frisbee, ball, hacky sack)
  • Water bottle, tea bags
  • Hair accessories, shoe laces, chap stick, deck of cards, key chain, toothbrush
  • A plant, or a pot and plant seeds
  • Movie passes or recreation centre passes
  • Gift card to bookstore or music store

The healthy schools movement is clearly a journey and we have made some great progress.  Today’s discussion is a good reminder we still have some more important conversations to have in schools, and communities as we promote healthy lifestyles.

* Thanks to Kathy Romses and others on the District Comprehensive School Health Committee for their thoughts that contributed to this post.

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