The University of Newcastle, Australia

Are PE teachers biased against overweight children?

Monday, 10 August 2015

Whether it's conscious or unconscious, a new University of Newcastle study has revealed that trainee PE teachers have a bias against obese children.

The study, published in the Journal of School Health, by Dr Marita Lynagh, Dr Philip J Morgan and Dr Ken Cliff assessed the beliefs and attitudes of trainee PE and non-specialists schoolteachers toward obese children.

Both specialist and non-specialist pre-service teachers reported  strong implicit and moderate explicit anti-fat bias.

With over 170 million children worldwide estimated to be overweight or obese, it is of concern that they are they target of stigmatisation and discrimination.

We know that overweight adults are the subject of bias in settings such as the workplace, health care and in the media, but less research has been undertaken into the bias against children.

This study of 239 trainee teachers revealed high levels of bias toward children, with a high proportion of teachers believing that "Most obese children feel that they are not as good as non-obese children".

Dr Marita Lynagh said that these studies confirmed their hypothesis. "Our findings are similar to those found in the US and in NZ where teachers associated obesity with negative character traits unrelated to weight.  It is likely that the biases reported by teacher reflect a much wider societal prejudice against overweight people. What we don't know, is whether teachers alter their 'teaching' of overweight children in any way or treat obese children differentially. We need to do more research."

The study found that trainees specialising in PE were four times more likely to be biased against overweight students, and three times more likely to make assumptions that they weren't as smart as their thinner peers.

30% of the study's participants felt that 'being obese was one of the worst things that could happen to a child'.

Only 5% of non-specialist teachers and 2% of specialist teachers felt that 'obese children are just as healthy as non-obese children.'

Dr Lynagh said that while childhood obesity is a well-recognised health issue associated with a number of significant health problems, both during childhood and in later adulthood, "being overweight as a child should not preclude them from living a healthy lifestyle. Their motor skills and fitness levels can be on a par with other children, and there is no evidence to support differences with regard to social and reasoning skills."

The authors hope that unveiling the bias might make both preservice and inservice teachers more aware of their attitudes and unconscious biases, so they can help all children become more active and reach their full potential.

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