Project examines healthy behavior modeling in the classroom

While East Carolina University is known for preparing educators for the classroom, a team of Pirate researchers is studying how teachers’ personal views on healthy behaviors impact their students.

Virginia C. Stage, an associate professor in the Department of Nutrition Science, along with two other Pirates — Department of Human Development and Family Science professor Archana Hegde and former EC Scholar and current master’s student Jocelyn Bayles — examined the link in the Public Health Nutrition journal published by the Cambridge University Press.

The publication was part of the team’s Engagement of Outreach Scholars Academy project. The program, led by the Office of Community Engagement and Research, connects faculty and students with community partners to develop a research project that solves a local need.

Stage said that research has consistently demonstrated that teacher role modeling can have a significant impact on students’ dietary behaviors, but often educators face barriers to improving their health.

Her study, which included 15 in-depth interviews with early childhood education instructors in eastern North Carolina, identified some of these potential barriers and offered solutions to help teachers better model healthy lifestyle behaviors in the classroom. The study’s participants are educators in the federal Head Start program, which serves more than 1 million children each year in the United States and its territories.


Want to learn more about healthy eating behaviors and nutritional barriers in eastern North Carolina?

Stage joins the Division of Research, Economic Development and Engagement as part of its Relentlessly Rural podcast with host Lamar Gilchrist to discuss nutritional education.

Stage’s interview begins at the 19:46 mark in Episode 1: Food Insecurity in ENC.

Listen to the podcast online or download it by searching Relentlessly Rural on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Undergraduate or graduate students interested in nutrition research are encouraged to explore Stage’s FEEd Lab for potential research opportunities.

Stage said that in her study, teachers showed enthusiasm in impacting their students’ health.

“Many of the teachers we work with have stated that they are internally motivated to impact children’s health in positive ways,” Stage said. “This study and others have found that teachers are greatly impacted by the negative health outcomes they have personally faced as a result of poor dietary and physical activity behaviors. In recent months, COVID has likely complicated this issue further.

“Because teachers report that they see the children in their classroom ‘as their own,’ they are often eager to encourage children to eat better and move more.”

However, enthusiasm alone is not enough to overcome the challenges of living healthy lives, Stage found. There are economic and social barriers that teachers must overcome.

“As a community, we should recognize that preschool teachers face important barriers to leading healthy lifestyles,” Stage said. “For one, our preschool teachers are largely underpaid. Low pay means that teachers may have fewer resources to support their ability to make positive health choices.

“The hard job of a preschool teacher also often makes it difficult for them to have the energy at the end of the day to cook healthy meals for themselves or be physically active. Educators and administrators should recognize these challenges and work together to create healthier work environments.”

While these barriers are not isolated to the teaching profession, due to the amount of time they spend with children, teachers may have a greater effect on the attitude students develop toward healthy habits, Stage said.

“The bigger challenge has been the teachers’ struggles with how to eat healthily and be physically active,” Stage said. “Providing teachers with education and resources that support their health, as well as their ability to promote positive health among children and families, can go a long way.”

Stage added that in the past, administrators have assumed that providing teachers with basic food and nutrition education resulted in improved classroom practices. Her study found that not all teachers make the connection between their health behaviors and health promotion in the classroom.

“This means that nutrition educators and administrators need to provide more specific guidance to teachers on how to promote healthy eating and physical activity among children,” Stage said. “One possible strategy might include partnering with extension programs, such as the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) to provide teachers with hands-on education about leading a healthy lifestyle and overcoming barriers, and shopping and cooking on a budget.”

In fact, Stage and colleagues describe the positive effect of the EFNEP’s program Eating Smart Moving More on Head Start teachers’ healthy eating and physical activity behaviors in an accepted and soon-to-be-published article in the Journal of Extension.

“Simple environmental changes made within the preschool center can also be effective, such as building a walking track by the school for teachers and families to use, or engaging teachers in creating lunch menus that are healthy and appetizing for all,” she said “The goal is to ‘make the healthy choice the easy choice’ by creating opportunities for teachers to eat healthy foods and be physically active every day.”

These changes may help teachers lead healthier lives, which provide better models for their students.

Stage said that teachers do not have to wait for administrators to promote healthy eating and physical activities and to begin learning more about nutrition.

“Three important things teachers can start doing today include allowing students to explore new foods with their senses, promoting self-regulation and utilizing role modeling,” she said.

Preschool teachers can find nutrition resources for their classrooms online through ECU’s Food-Based Early Childhood Education Lab and North Carolina State University’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Program.