Should Schools Calculate – And Share – Your Child’s Body Mass Index?

Schools in 19 states are calculating each student’s Body Mass Index – BMI – and sending the information to parents. The point, of course, is to inform parents if a child is clinically obese – or getting to that point. 

There are a number of opinions about this practice. Elisa Zied has illustrated – in her The Scoop on Food blog – the pros and cons of this approach as a method for combating childhood obesity. We know we need to do something to bring down rates of obesity in kids. But is this approach worth pursuing?

I suggest it isn’t.

The reason is that providing information without suggestions for change is typically not influential. I attended an early childhood summit at the Boston Children’s Museum last spring, and it was clear that public health experts believe that parents need strategies for handling a range of complex issues that face them and their kids rather than facts and figures. Simply telling them that their child is obese, without providing real support and ideas for changing that picture, will probably not do much at all. And some worry it will only encourage poor self-image. Look at it this way. If a child is doing poorly in school, the report card that gets sent him lets the parent know that. But without any information about why the child is doing badly (Is the material too hard? Do they need a different study routine? Is there a possible learning disorder? Are they goofing around in class too much?), and without conversation between the school and parents about the next steps, that information does not typically lead to a solution.

Schools do have the potential to educate and influence parents as well as their kids. Rather than sending home a BMI score like it’s another grade, it would make sense to consider educational programs for parents and kids that take on the causes of obesity. They could share strategic information such as the types and amounts of food kids should be eating – and illustrate the caloric realities of fast food. They could provide suggestions for parents who are struggling to buy healthy foods because of the costs – and give them some real options for changing their kids’ diets. Genetics is part of the cause for some – some kids are just more prone to putting weight on easily – and the reality of that should be discussed. More information about how much exercise kids need – and how they should get it – should be part of the mix.

I’m not saying that schools should do this. But I’m saying that if schools want to play a meaningful role in combating childhood obesity, they will need to do much more than just providing a BMI score.

Body Mass Index via Shutterstock.com

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  1. [...] Body mass index (BMI) standards can be misleading for athletic students whose bodies are in excellent condition, but higher in muscle mass.  One 11-year-old Naples, Florida girl learned this when her school sent home a letter warning her parents that she was in danger of becoming overweight; Lilly Grasso is a star volleyball player and has a healthy lifestyle.  More on the letter, and her parents’ reaction, from Today.com: The letter claimed that Lilly’s body mass index, or BMI, was 22 and she was at risk for being overweight. The 11-year-old star volleyball player carries 124 pounds on an athletic frame of 5’3” and eats healthy foods. [...]