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Nutrition Education in Public Elementary School Classrooms, K-5
NCES: 2000040
March 2000

Training to Teach Nutrition

To provide information on the level of training to teach nutrition, teachers were asked to report the preparation they had had for teaching nutrition. Teachers could report training from any or all of four training methods (Figure 1 and Table 2).

  • Thirty-seven percent reported training as an undergraduate or graduate student (averaging 1.8 courses per teacher);


  • Twenty-six percent reported participating in workshops, in-service, or summer institutes (averaging 7.2 hours per teacher);


  • Fourteen percent reported some other professional development training (averaging 2.5 courses per teacher); and


  • About 84 percent reported doing research and reading on their own.

About half of elementary school teachers (52 percent) reported formal training to teach nutrition. To construct this summary measure, teacher responses were ranked by the most formal method of training reported. Training as an undergraduate or graduate student was ranked as most formal, and the category accounted for 37 percent of teachers. Next were workshops, in-service, and summer institutes merged with other professional development training, accounting for an additional 15 percent. Research and reading on their own was the next most formal method, reported by 36 percent of teachers who reported neither college coursework nor in-service or professional development training. Eleven percent reported they had no training to prepare them to teach nutrition (Figure 2). Almost half of teachers (47 percent) had no formal training at all. This includes teachers whose most formal method was research and reading on their own and those who reported no training.

Resources in Support of Nutrition Education

Support provided by schools can encourage classroom teachers in their nutrition education efforts. Teachers were asked whether six resources in support of nutrition education were readily available to them at their schools, and for four of the resources, what their potential for improving nutrition education was (Table 3 and Table 4). The resources asked about were the following:

  • High-quality in-service training that focuses on teaching strategies for behavior change (available to 27 percent of teachers);


  • School food-service personnel serving healthy, well-balanced meals in the cafeteria (available to 82 percent of teachers);


  • Reference materials on nutrition education available at the school (available to 74 percent of teachers);


  • Support from school or district for nutrition education as a valid use of instructional time (available to 70 percent of teachers);


  • A written policy or guidelines on nutrition education from the school, district, or state (available to 57 percent of teachers); and


  • A coordinated school nutrition policy-defined as addressing such issues as coordinating nutrition education across subjects and across grades, collaboration between the school meals program staff and the classroom, and policies on outside food vendors in the school and closed lunch periods (available to 37 percent of teachers).

With two exceptions, teachers generally report high availability of resources in support of nutrition education. Table 3 shows the teachers' responses broken out by geographic region. The categories with the lowest reported availability, i.e., high-quality in-service training in nutrition education and a coordinated school nutrition policy, both require extensive commitment on the part of the school's administration. By region, teachers from the Southeast reported greater availability of these two resources than teachers from other regions.

Overall, about half of teachers (50 percent) reported that fewer than four of the six resources were available to them, and about half reported between four and six (not shown in a table). This summary measure of the level of general support at the school for nutrition education is used later in this report to analyze reported classroom activities.

Despite research indicating the importance of these resources, 15 teachers do not view access to these resources as the only thing needed to improve nutrition education (Table 4). About 30 percent of these teachers indicated that healthy school cafeteria meals (34 percent), support for use of instructional time (29 percent), and reference materials at school (28 percent) would improve it to a great extent. About one-fifth (21 percent) indicated that high-quality inservice training would improve it to a great extent. Between 39 and 49 percent reported that each of these resources would improve nutrition education to a moderate extent.

Nutrition Education in the Classroom

Eighty-eight percent of elementary school teachers reported that they taught lessons about nutrition to their students in the 1996-97 school year (Table 5). More kindergarten through second-grade teachers (92 percent) taught nutrition than did third- through fifth-grade teachers (83 percent).

Amount of Nutrition Instruction

One important element of effective nutrition instruction is devotion of adequate time. In particular, 50 hours has been found to be the minimum to show impact on nutrition behavior. 16 Teachers were asked to report the total hours they spent in the current year (school year 1996-97) on nutrition education, including time dedicated specifically to nutrition lessons and time spent on integrated lessons. Data in Table 5 indicate that, among the teachers who did teach nutrition, the mean number of hours spent on nutrition education by elementary school teachers was 13, below the 50 hours thought to be necessary for impact on behavior. 17

Placement in the Curriculum

Nutrition can be taught as a separate subject, but it can also be integrated into other subjects. Elementary school teachers reported the extent to which they integrated nutrition lessons into the subjects of health and physical education, history and social studies, mathematics, reading and language arts, and science (Table 5), and also reported whether they taught nutrition as a separate subject (Table 7). About one-third of teachers (35 percent) taught nutrition as a separate subject, and close to the same number integrated nutrition lessons to a great extent into health and physical education (39 percent) and science (33 percent). Fewer teachers integrated lessons to a great extent into reading and language arts (14 percent), history and social studies, and mathematics (4 and 5 percent, respectively). About 4 percent of teachers taught nutrition as a separate subject but did not integrate it into other subjects (Figure 3).

Both level of support from the school for nutrition education and level of teacher training appear to be related to whether teachers integrate lessons about nutrition into other subjects. To shed some light on these relationships, Figure 4 shows the proportion of elementary teachers who did not integrate lessons about nutrition into history and social studies and mathematics. Teachers in low-support schools and those with no training were generally least likely to integrate nutrition lessons. For example, 35 percent of teachers in low-support schools versus 19 percent of those in high-support schools did not integrate lessons about nutrition into history and social studies; and 44 percent of teachers with no training versus 21 percent of those with college courseworks do not integrate lessons about nutrition into history and social studies. 18

Teaching Strategies

Teachers reported that they employed active learning strategies and did not rely exclusively on traditional lecturing methods for nutrition education. Research has shown that these student-centered instructional strategies are more effective at changing behavior than other methods.

An active, behaviorally focused approach should  be used consistently in nutrition education programs. An active, learner-centered behavioral change  process then systematically targets the psychosocial  factors that are antecedents of behavior such as  personal factors and behavioral capabilities,  as well as environmental factors. 19

Table 8 lists the teaching strategies by the extent of their use by elementary school teachers. Active learning strategies, such as active discussion (57 percent), hands-on learning (29 percent), and collaborative work (27 percent), were used to a great extent by the most teachers. More traditional techniques, such as lecturing (8 percent), demonstration (19 percent), and media presentations (7 percent), were also used to a great extent by some teachers. Few teachers (5 percent or less) reported using computers or other advanced technology, events such as field trips and guest speakers, and special events like fairs and plays to a great extent.

Teachers of grades K-2, teachers with higher levels of support for nutrition education from their schools, and teachers with more training in nutrition education were more likely to use some of the active learning strategies in their nutrition instruction to a moderate or great extent.

  • By instructional level, kindergarten through second-grade teachers were more likely to use hands-on learning (75 percent) and role playing (37 percent) to a moderate or great extent than were third- through fifth grade teachers (63 percent and 26 percent, respectively) (Table 9). However, kindergarten through second-grade teachers were less likely to use student projects (37 versus 44 percent) to a moderate or great extent.


  • More teachers with high administrative support than those with low support used collaborative or cooperative work (78 versus 65 percent), computers (15 versus 6 percent), hands-on learning (76 versus 61 percent), and student projects (48 versus 31 percent) to a moderate or great extent.


  • Teachers with no training in nutrition education were less likely than those with college coursework to use several of the active learning strategies (hands-on learning, role playing, student projects, and collaboration) to a moderate or great extent. Fifty-three percent of teachers with no training used collaborative work versus 76 percent of teachers with college coursework in nutrition education to a moderate or great extent.

Looking more closely at teaching strategies least likely to be used, teachers with low levels of support and teachers with no training (compared to those with college training) were less likely to use several of these strategies, including the following: computers or other advanced technology, field trips, guest speakers, special events such as fairs and plays, and team teaching (Table 10). Briefly,

  • Thirty percent of low-support teachers used computers to any extent, versus 50 percent of high-support teachers;


  • Thirty-three percent of low-support teachers used field trips to any extent, versus 44 percent of high-support teachers;


  • Forty-one percent of low-support teachers and 42 percent of teachers with no training used guest speakers to any extent, versus 62 percent of high-support teachers and 61 percent of teachers with college training;


  • Forty percent of low-support teachers and 33 percent of teachers with no training used special events to any extent, versus 53 percent of high support teachers and 55 percent of teachers with college training; and


  • Twenty-nine percent of low-support teachers used team teaching to any extent, versus 45 percent of high-support teachers.

For these strategies, teachers whose most formal training was research and reading on their own tended to resemble those with no training, while teachers with in-service training tended to resemble those with college training.

Working with the School Meals Program Staff

As part of its School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children, the USDA is encouraging school meals programs to take an active role in the nutrition education of students. The objective of participation in nutrition education is to promote student selection and consumption of the healthier school meals that meals programs are now required to serve in the cafeteria. Participation by food service staff in nutrition education in the classroom is not the easiest of tasks to accomplish because of logistical and other barriers. To gauge the extent and importance of these barriers, teachers who taught nutrition were asked to rate the extent to which eight factors were barriers to cooperation with their school meals program staff in providing nutrition education to their students. Results are reported in Table 11. About 49 percent of teachers reported they had no barriers to cooperation. The barriers asked about were the following:

  • No onsite kitchen at the school,


  • The way the school meals program is operated (e.g., outside vendor, satellite kitchen),


  • Unsure what activities are possible,


  • Insufficient instructional time to fit in activities,


  • Insufficient time on the part of the meals program staff,


  • Classroom and meals program staff schedules hard to coordinate,


  • Lack of administrative support or approval, and


  • Lack of interest by the meals program staff.

While about half (49 percent) of elementary school teachers who teach nutrition reported no barriers to cooperation with their school meals program staff in providing nutrition education (Table 12), those who did report barriers tended to focus on the following: lack of instructional time and time on the part of the meals program staff, uncertainty about possible activities, and difficulty of schedule coordination between teachers and meals program staff. For example:

  • Twenty-one percent reported that insufficient instructional time was a barrier to a great extent;


  • Twenty-two percent reported that insufficient time on the part of the meals program staff was a barrier to a great extent;


  • Seventeen percent reported that being unsure what activities are possible was a barrier to a great extent; and


  • Nineteen percent reported that classroom and meals program staff schedules being hard to coordinate was a barrier to a great extent.

Cited less frequently as barriers to a great extent were the lack of an onsite kitchen (9 percent), the way the meals program is operated (11 percent), and lack of interest on the part of the meals program staff (11 percent). (The way the meals program is operated includes arrangements such as outside vendors and satellite kitchens.) Six percent reported that lack of administrative approval or support was a great barrier to cooperation with the meals program staff.

Table 12 shows the reported barriers broken out by instructional level and geographic region. There are some differences in barriers cited between teachers in different geographic regions. Teachers in the Southeast were more likely to report having no barriers to cooperation (63 percent, versus 44 percent for the Northeast, 46 percent for the Central, and 43 percent for the West). Southeast teachers were also less likely to report the way the meals program is operated as a barrier (3 percent, versus 13 percent, 14 percent, and 13 percent, respectively).

__________________________

15Isobel Contento, "Conclusions." Journal of Nutrition Education, 27(6) (November-December 1995):358-359.

16Lytle, "Nutrition Education for School-aged Children," 307.

17The estimates that follow about classroom practices in nutrition education do not include the 12 percent of teachers who did not teach lessons about nutrition.

18The apparent difference of 30 percent of teachers whose most formal training is research on their own versus 44 percent of those with no training integrating nutrition lessons into history is not statistically significant.

19Contento, "Conclusions," 360.

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