Why Using Sugar in Schools is a Bad Idea

Teaching healthy habits in school

Ever have a moment when your mouth dropped open involuntarily as you process incoming data? Sometimes it’s that moment when you know you must take action, whether it’s outside your comfort zone or not.

My third-grader goes to a good school with teachers who really care. But good schools can have policies that are behind the times, especially when it comes to what we’re teaching kids about nutrition. If you’ve ever been uncomfortable with the candy/food policy in your child’s school but thought it was useless to speak out, read on.

Candy as a “Tool?”

When the bell rang on the second day of third grade, my daughter came out of school complaining of a stomachache.

“I just ate 49 Skittles in math,” she said, rubbing her stomach.

That’s when my mouth dropped.

As it turns out, third-graders play a math game early in the year in which teachers use Skittles as a “motivational tool.” Students are given the option to eat the candy or not – and of course, my eight-year-old with the major sweet tooth opted in.

I was already aware that in some classes, candy was handed out liberally throughout the year as a reward for good behavior. I remembered my daughter’s “treasure box” rewards and of course class parties hosted with plates of sweet treats. Sugary donuts are used for school fundraisers, and on birthdays every child is allowed to bring in cupcakes or another sweet treat.

But the sheer excessiveness of the math candy prompted me to pin down gnawing thoughts: Should schools be handing out sugar to kids when parents are trying to teach them healthy attitudes about nutrition and dental care at home? What kind of message does it send to kids when schools endorse sweets? And what about those of us who are concerned about dyes and other harmful ingredients found in many processed, refined sweets?

Sweets Undermine Kids’ Health

After emailing the teacher about my concerns it became clear that my daughter could be excluded from treats and given “fruit snacks” instead. But I declined, saying fruit snacks are merely candy in disguise and I didn’t want my child singled out. To me, the answer was simply less candy (or none) handed out in school.

When my daughter walked out of school with more candy – rewards for taking a required test – I met with the principal, along with a friend who shared my concerns. The principal was sympathetic and suggested we attend PTA meetings to address the issue.

Little did I know that for the next six months we would be attending sometimes contentious PTA meetings working to get a food-as-rewards policy implemented at the school. Contentious, you say? Yes – there are plenty of parents who believe that children should be rewarded with candy, despite these negatives:

  • With 17 percent [1] of children aged 2 to 19 in the United States being overweight or obese, we need to think about what we’re teaching kids about their relationship with food. Using food to satisfy an emotional need is clearly a major American past time which leads to weight gain and health problems.Sure, food is a legitimate way to celebrate, gather together, and enjoy life. But what about the times when you’re having a bad day and stop for a double-decker ice cream? Or you’re all alone on the couch feeling lonely and decide a bag of chips is in order? Or the times when you’ve worked hard all day and “deserve” a candy bar (or two)? Is handing out candy for good behavior teaching kids they should reward themselves the same way?
  • Using treats as rewards (and certainly in math) is poor modeling and can compromise classroom learning [2]. My daughter’s school sends home a list of “healthy snacks” parents are supposed to abide by, so it’s hypocritical to also encourage unhealthy behavior and food associations along with a sugar high that can distract kids from learning.
  • Obviously there are negative health effects that can result from consuming sweets. Sweets are associated with weight gain, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, gallstones, certain cancers, and more [3]. (Check out the American Heart Association’s stand on sugar consumption.) Not only that but there are dyes and artificial ingredients in candy that are a far cry from clean eating.
  • Rewarding children with food and sweets undermines what we’re trying to teach our kids at home. I expect my daughter to do her homework without a reward, but the school is rewarding her for doing something she was supposed to do!

Practicing Mindfulness in Schools

Six months later, after heated discussions with teachers, principals, and parents about the need (or lack of need) to control what the school hands out as rewards, we have a policy in place that:

  • Requires teachers to inform parents of their intent to give out candy and give parents the chance to opt out;
  • Encourages teachers not to use candy (or food) as a reward or as part of the curriculum and educates teachers about why; and
  • Encourages parents bring in healthy food or nonfood items for holiday parties and birthdays.

This isn’t a policy that forbids the school from handing out candy or food; political changes involve compromise and can be slow. But the school now knows that it will be held accountable and mindful for what it gives kids.

Victories often come in small bursts. One teacher, who originally was part of a team using candy in math, now has the best ideas ways for rewarding students without food.

If you’re concerned about sweets (or food) given out in your child’s school, I encourage you to take action. Even if you provoke thought and discussion only, you’ve helped your school move in the right direction. And who knows – maybe your child’s school simply hasn’t thought through their policy yet, and you can be the impetus to make that happen.

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Comments

  1. Good for you for taking a stand! I’m not a parent but I find it frustrating when people believe it’s the parents’ responsibility to ensure that a child is eating healthy. If a child’s environment is filled with candy and junk food and snacks for no reason it can be impossible to monitor their diet.
    Samantha Angela recently posted..Waist Goals Update 4My Profile

    • Thanks Samantha! It’s truly frustrating to have a school endorsing candy when you’re trying to do the opposite at home. Plus kids get SO much junk everywhere they go. I’m just glad they finally listened and were open to at least beginning to address it.

  2. I would be LIVID if that was my kid! I’m glad you are voicing your objection to this. It’s not ok on so many levels…dietary restrictions and parenting issues let alone the potential for eating disorders. Wow!
    Lisa recently posted..The HeavyMy Profile

    • Yes- a school should do no harm at the very least. It’s almost like nostalgia to parents, giving kids treats as rewards. I just don’t think schools should be doing it!

  3. My jaw is dropping too. Thank heaven you cared enough to fight this idiocy, but it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Unbelievable.
    Mary C. Weaver, CSCS recently posted..Squeeze more exercise into half the timeMy Profile

  4. Great post Suzanne!!! I love that you got involved BUT you should not have had to in the first place. I do see this as an issue for sure. Parents make choices for kids but a school giving out so much of this & to the extent that a kid gets sick – bad! I think by now that the school should know to reward in a different way than contributing to the child obesity epidemic!
    Jody – Fit at 55 recently posted..Running Shoe Love & Saving My Exercise Life!My Profile

  5. I couldn’t agree more. Food as a reward has gone a long way toward the obesity epidemic. It’s really time for this practice to stop.
    Michelle recently posted..A New Suit Of LightsMy Profile

  6. I couldn’t agree more! Sad to say, I used to be guilty of something similar however. In my old life, as a bank manager, I kept a good drawer that included candy. When someone did a good job I would give them one of their favorites. I hate to admit it but I am glad I saw the error of my ways.
    Pamela Hernandez recently posted..The Secret to Weight MaintenanceMy Profile

    • Lol… it’s SO common! Completely sociably acceptable. They even had suckers at the front desk of the school. Having a bad day? Take one! Sat through a haircut? You deserve it! Pretty ingrained.

  7. You KNOW I’m so standing with you!!
    Miz recently posted..Mother/daughter New Balance shoes?!My Profile

  8. Hi, I teach children and I never give children snacks as a
    reward. It’s always a bad idea to do this on a regular basis
    because children learn only to behave if they receive a ‘reward’.
    If for any reason they are in a class where they cannot receive
    this reward then their behaviour becomes difficult to manage. I
    would also like to say that parents have a responsibility here. You
    would not believe the amount of parents who drop their children off
    to class with a fistful of candy bars, sweets and fizzy drinks. The
    children eat them in class and their behaviour becomes absolutely
    impossible to manage (I remember how hyperactive I was as a child
    when i had sugar). I would therefore say the approach needs to be
    twofold, the parents must be educated, and the teachers must not
    rely on such tactics which amounts to emotional bribery to get the
    children to behave, it’s just cheating the children in the end.
    Loving the website by the way! Very though provoking! Ella :
    )

    • Ella thanks for your insight as a teacher. I agree 100% that parents are a huge factor here; I was floored at their role in encouraging sweets. Teachers reported that it was PARENTS who sent in big bags of junk and wanted candy used in math. You definitely have your work cut out for you, but I admire you for drawing the line at using candy in school.

  9. Great post and great work! When I was growing up, corporal punishment was the norm. This changed when parents and teachers recognized it was not in the best long term interest of children. We need a similar shift when it comes to using food as a reward. I created this infographic of the major health organizations recommendations not to use food as a reward: http://kyhealthykids.com/2013/04/15/food-as-reward-infographic/

    • You rock, Casey! You are so right that things accepted as normal and routine need to be questioned. It wasn’t even that long ago that children were punished by the rod in school. Love your site and the infographic – thanks so much for sharing it and commenting!

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