Lessons From the Institute of Medicine’s Panel on Childhood Obesity

March 14, 2013

Rochelle Davis, President and CEO, Healthy Schools Campaign, on key strategies for parent empowerment.

by Rochelle Davis, President and CEO, Healthy Schools Campaign

Back in February, I had the honor of speaking to the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Childhood Obesity Prevention in Washington D.C., as part of a public session, “A Conversation About Parents and Childhood Obesity Prevention.” In addition to my presentation about engaging parents as school wellness champions, I had the opportunity to listen to some of the other presenters who spoke about effective strategies for helping parents motivate their children to adopt healthy lifestyles.

Our parent empowerment program is central to our overall strategy to provide students with healthy food, opportunities for physical activity and knowledge needed for lifelong healthy habits. Hundreds of parents have gotten involved in our program and have made a tremendous difference in Chicago’s school food and fitness environment. They have created wellness teams in 55 schools, 25 which have received recognition by the  HealthierUS School Challenge. These parents also understand the need for strong district policies and programs, so that all children, not just their children, have the opportunity to be in a health promoting environment. This parent group spearheaded the campaign to restore recess at all Chicago elementary schools, a Breakfast in the Classroom program and many more important changes, and last year, received local and national recognition. We are very proud that one of our parent leaders was recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change.

Participating in the Institute of Medicine (IOM) meeting I was able to learn about interventions to help parents create healthy home environment. As I listened to clinicians talk about their successful strategies for engaging parents to create a health promoting home environment for their children, I realized there were many parallels between their work focused on the home and our work in the schools:

  1. Child-centered messaging. Just like the clinicians, HSC starts with the understanding that parents love their children and want what will be best for their children. This simple and common sense recognition has lead both of us to use similar messages for engaging parents–how can we help you help your children grow up to be healthy and happy–not scary information about the long-term consequences of  obesity or public health crises and its impact on healthcare costs. This is not to say that information is not shared with parents, but it is not the main message, and it is not communicated to them not as accusations for being irresponsible, but in the context that they want what is best for the children.
  2. Parents need knowledge and skill to become advocates in their own homes and communities. Even if parents want to make those changes and foster healthier habits with their families or in their school, they lack the knowledge and skill to take what they know to be important and translate that to doable and realistic steps. Many parents may need to learn how to cook a healthy meal, need strategies for getting their family active and need to know  how to connect with community resources. Effective programs for parents include this type of skill development. Our program empowering parents to be agents of change in schools is very similar. We provide parents with the leadership skills to be voices in their schools and communities and the knowledge they need to understand the school environment. Then we support them as they work with principals, teachers  and other parents to effectively implement health promoting policies and programs.
  3. We need to help parents find a sense of their own power. The researchers and clinicians who presented talked about how many parents feel powerless in their own homes to set rules with their kids. They found difficulty setting limits when it came to junk food or taking the television out of bedrooms. Much of their work with parents is to help them realize their power and use it to effectively support their child’s health. At Healthy Schools Campaign, we also help parents understand the power they have in impacting schools and help them use it to effectively bring health promoting policies and programs to schools.

At the end of the day, we need an integrated approach. We need to help parents in their homes, in their communities and in their schools. We appreciated the opportunity to learn from researchers and clinicians who are working with parents to change in the home and we applaud the IOM for focusing on this important role and inviting us into the conversation. For those interested in learning more, audio and slides from the day’s presentations will be available on the IOM website.