The Healthy Schools LAB will heighten awareness and understanding of issues and opportunities surrounding health and wellness in the K to PhD education system and contribute to the collective development of a healthy, active society.
This post was shared by a good friend of the Healthy School Lab, Dr. Shelly Russell-Mayhew. You can find her original open letter on her website. Shelly is a Full Professor in the Werklund School of Education (University of Calgary) and the Director of the Body Image Research Lab. Thanks for the time, effort and commitment you’ve put into this letter (and your work overall!) for the benefit of Alberta students. And thanks for letting us share it here!
April 21, 2021
As Director of the Body Image Research Lab, a Research Professor in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary, and perhaps, most importantly, as the mother of a teenage daughter, I am writing to urge you to raise your voice in protest against the Draft Physical Education and Wellness Kindergarten to Grade 6 Curriculum. As a researcher and educator who has spent my almost 20-year career studying body image and weight-related issues, I am gravely concerned about how this curriculum might harm our children’s relationship with their bodies, which directly impacts their wellbeing
At first glance, the curriculum might seem reasonable. However, a deeper dive reveals the presence of concepts that are dangerous and the absence of content and context that are fundamental to healthy development.
My concerns about the draft curriculum can be summarized in three main points in that it risks:
This curriculum does not align with any of the latest research about how to address physical, mental, social, or emotional health issues related to obesity or eating disorders. The focus on body mass, reading food labels, portion sizes, categorizing food as healthy or unhealthy, and personal fitness flies in the face of decades of research about obesity and eating disorder prevention. Missing almost entirely (with only a brief mention in Grade 4 in relation to puberty) are learning outcomes related to positive body image. Specific examples that illustrate my concerns include:
If I was to write a curriculum with the intent of having children preoccupied with their weight and shape, it would be this curriculum. It is ironic that a draft curriculum that focuses so diligently on personal responsibility for health outcomes may be responsible for damaging our children’s body image. There is a very narrow focus on wellness emphasizing personal responsibility and physical wellbeing. Phrases such as “proper nutrition” and “physical fitness goals” are not only developmentally inappropriate but miss the bigger picture. What about the joy of movement? What about the family context of these children? What about the determinants of health outside of an individual’s control? In other words, the focus on mass and measurement is inappropriate and dangerous in a school context. All dimensions of wellness including social, physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and environmental are important and interconnected. We must focus on the whole child in a whole school community approach.
How, then, should curriculum promote and discuss physical education and wellness? What is the most responsible way, through curriculum, to encourage students to thrive physically, emotionally, socially, and mentally? Based on what I assess is absent but needed in the curriculum, I recommend to:
Students come to school with an existing understanding about bodies and are likely familiar with widespread messages that simplistically link health, diet, and weight. The absence of body image and embodiment concepts, the absence of critical thought into the realities of social media, and the reinforcement of false dichotomies like ‘good food and bad food’ presume that health is something that be measured or a check box that can be ticked off a list. Our children deserve more.
At first glance, the curriculum may seem to check some boxes. Unfortunately, some of these boxes are dangerous and the most important boxes are absent. Please do not let this draft curriculum deceive you. It does a disservice to our children. Use your voice as parents as it is a voice that might be heard and considered.
Written with the hope that together we advocate for better for our children.
Dr. Shelly Russell-Mayhew, PhD, R. Psych.
and Members of the Body Image Research Lab:
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