Elementary school kids who learned about obesity from teen mentors lost weight, lowered their blood pressure and took on healthy lifestyle changes, according to a new study by Ohio State University.
In contrast, children who received the same instruction from adults in a traditional classroom experienced no changes in their health. The findings suggest that school systems consider using teen mentors to instruct younger children in select health-related programs.
For one hour after school each week, teen mentors met one-on-one with students (ages 8-11) in a large gym setting while another group of students was taught in a classroom by school system employees, such as librarians or administrative staff.
The results showed that only the teen-mentored group had an increase in physical activity and marginal decreases in body mass index and diastolic blood pressure.
Kids mentored by teens also showed slight increases in nutrition knowledge and plans to change their behavior. Children taught by adults showed no improved health outcomes.
“The findings reaffirmed what I suspected, that the teens impacted physical activity for the kids rather than their nutrition. That makes sense because most kids don’t have a whole lot of control over what they eat. They rely on parents to provide food at home and otherwise rely on what the school provides,” said Laureen Smith, Ph.D., associate professor of nursing at Ohio State and lead author of the study.
Overall, 160 children in the third and fourth grades participated in the intervention, along with 32 teen mentors and five adult teachers. The study was held at three public schools in the same county, and teen mentors attended high schools affiliated with the participating elementary schools.
“Not only would this help schools deliver a curriculum, but this study supports the idea that this mentoring approach is a better way to impact younger kids, and it creates an infrastructure to improve health without it having to come from a classroom,” said Smith.
“I focused on diet and nutrition, but there’s no reason this can’t be used to address other health issues that a school identifies. In order for this to be successful, there has to be good training and good support to the teens. But the right teens with the right help and support can make a big difference.”
Although specific teachers and mentors did not affect the kids’ outcomes, the school they attended did make a difference. The best results were found in a school that had the most disadvantages based on such economic indicators as parental unemployment and student eligibility for free and reduced lunches.
“Younger kids look at older kids in their peer group as role models. Teens provide younger children perceived psychological safety and a social network,” she said.
“And this is helpful to adults. Using teen mentors removes some pressure on the staff and teachers of a school to reach students and have an impact on their health.”
The research is published in the Journal of School Nursing.
Source: Ohio State University