Childhood Overweight and Academic Performance

National Study of Kindergartners and First-Graders

Published in: Obesity Research, v. 12, no. 1, Jan. 2004, p. 58-68

Posted on RAND.org on January 01, 2004

by Ashlesha Datar, Roland Sturm, Jennifer Magnabosco

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OBJECTIVE: To examine the association between children's overweight status in kindergarten and their academic achievement in kindergarten and first grade. RESEARCH METHODS AND PROCEDURES: The data analyzed consisted of 11,192 first time kindergartners from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative sample of kindergartners in the U.S. in 1998. Multivariate regression techniques were used to estimate the independent association of overweight status with children's math and reading standardized test scores in kindergarten and grade 1. The authors controlled for socioeconomic status, parent-child interaction, birth weight, physical activity, and television watching. RESULTS: Overweight children had significantly lower math and reading test scores compared with nonoverweight children in kindergarten. Both groups were gaining similarly on math and reading test scores, resulting in significantly lower test scores among overweight children at the end of grade 1. However, these differences, except for boys' math scores at baseline (difference = 1.22 points, p = 0.001), became insignificant after including socioeconomic and behavioral variables, indicating that overweight is a marker but not a causal factor. Race/ethnicity and mother's education were stronger predictors of test score gains or levels than overweight status. DISCUSSION: Significant differences in test scores by overweight status at the beginning of kindergarten and the end of grade 1 can be explained by other individual characteristics, including parental education and the home environment. However, overweight is more easily observable by other students compared with socioeconomic characteristics, and its significant (unadjusted) association with worse academic performance can contribute to the stigma of overweight as early as the first years of elementary school.

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