Nutrition: Key to early academic success?

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It’s every good parent’s dream: to have a child who is happy, healthy, socially ept and able to succeed in school. For educators, having students set up for success is equally important. Committed educators, empowered students, personalized learning and education that continues beyond the school day are among some of the ingredients that have been hailed key to student success at school, but there are some simpler, more straightforward things that can support early education success – a decent breakfast being one of those.

The first years of a child’s life is marked by rapid development, development more rapid than any other time of their life, in fact. How children are being supported nutritionally is of incredible importance at this time for physical health and cognitive development, but also for school readiness and academic success. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the nutrition children receive during their first 1,000 days of life has a profound and ongoing impact on their development. With insufficient nutrition, young brains will not grow to their fullest potential, with serious risk of lifelong deficits in brain function despite nutrient repletion later in life the result of this failure to provide key nutrients during this critical period of brain development.

According to the world’s most respected pediatricians, children who eat breakfast participate more in class discussions, get better grades on average, and demonstrate better memory, alertness, and faster information processing. Hungry students, on the other hand, are more prone to demonstrate slower memory recall, hyperactive and attention problems, have lower math scores and are more likely to repeat a grade. Despite this, between 8 to 12 per cent of school-age children and a whopping 30 per cent of adolescents skip breakfast entirely, according to the Healthy Children Website. Even more worrying is that over half of America’s infants are on nutritional assistance, with the top vegetable consumed by American toddlers the French fry.

Some other concerning stats:

  • American children ages 2-18 are eating 40 per cent of their daily calories from “empty calories,” such as sugar sweetened beverage.
  • 92 per cent of girls aged 9-18 do not get enough calcium from what they eat and drink each day.
  • 75 per cent of children aged 6-19 do not eat enough fruit every day.
  • Only 13.8 per cent of high school students eat enough vegetables every day.

Perhaps the reason America’s education system is failing its students is because of its inability to identify basic flaws in the way we are raising our children and preparing them for school. A few years ago, America’s exams revealed that just one-third or less of Grade 8 students were proficient in math, science, or reading, and that just 76 percent of all high school graduates were “not adequately prepared academically for first-year college courses”. It’s a shocking reality, but one that ought surely to propel school administers to look at how to improve graduation rates and learning success through simple mechanisms.

A focus on nutrition during early childhood would do just this, according to the world’s leading experts. Not only can eating properly support better school performance through the increase in energy that a sufficient breakfast and high-energy snacks and food throughout the day results in, but an injection of morning carbs allows children to try their best during P.E. classes and sporting activities throughout the school day.

Nutrition can be linked to improved brain functioning – as well as have the opposite effect on a young person’s brain. Deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E, vitamin B, iodine, and zinc, have been shown to inhibit one’s mental concentration, while iron deficiencies can decrease dopamine transmission and thereby negatively impact a child’s cognitive abilities. Studies have also proven that amino acids can improve perception, intuition, and reasoning, and that sugar on the other hand has a negative impact on child behaviour, while malnutrition leads to behavioural problems. The verdict is in: a good diet can make a world of difference to a child at school, producing better behaviours and lending to a more conducive learning environment for all.

Even Rwanda has embarked on new efforts to ensure all school-going children across the country receive sufficient nutritional support for learning in the form of at least half a litre of milk per day, in line with the National Dairy Strategy, which recognises the importance of a child consuming milk each day for their own development. Why is it that Rwanda recognises this, but American educators and schools still do not?

In their defense, efforts to move towards farm-to-table catering in schools across America may be reflective of more than just support for regional producers. It represents the growing recognition that real, natural, sustainably sourced food is better for our young ones than fast food and artificially produced food high in fats and sugars. The 2018 School Nutrition Operations Report: The State of School Nutrition reports that almost 60 per cent of the 1,550 respondents surveyed claimed their school cafeteria serves locally-grown fruits and vegetables – a jump from previous years. But far more needs to be done before America can sit back and breathe a sigh of relief in the knowledge that it has done all it can for its young learners.

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