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Alberta's draft K-6 health and wellness curriculum promotes disordered eating habits, experts warn

Dietitians, researchers and educators says Alberta's proposed K-6 draft curriculum for physical education and wellness may harm children's relationships with their bodies and promote disordered eating habits. 

The University of Calgary's body image research lab is among those raising concerns

Experts like registered psychologist Angela Grace, left, University of Calgary professor Shelly Russell-Mayhew and dietitian Terri Ney say Alberta's draft K-6 curriculum for health and wellness is riddled with ideas and concepts that could create body image issues and promote disordered eating. (CBC)

Dietitians, researchers and educators say Alberta's proposed K-6 draft curriculum for physical education and wellness may harm children's relationships with their bodies and promote disordered eating habits. 

The province unveiled its draft K to 6 curriculum at the end of March. It came under immediate criticism by advocates, parents and school districts alike for slew of different reasons, including parts of it appear to have been plagiarized, and proposed outcomes are developmentally inappropriate.

The government will spend $6 million this year developing resources and preparing teachers to test the new curriculum in select elementary classrooms, beginning in September.

Dozens of the province's school boards, including the Calgary Board of Education and the Calgary Catholic School District, have already made the decision not to pilot the draft curriculum because of their concerns. 

U of C researchers pen open letter

The University of Calgary's body image research lab is among those raising concerns.

Researchers from the lab recently penned an open letter to parents with school-aged children in the province outlining why they believe the curriculum offers a simplistic view of wellness.

They said it does not reflect current research for properly addressing issues related to obesity and eating disorders. 

"It's deceptive because at first glance it seems like maybe it seems reasonable. But when you look at it further, there are a number of concerns," said team leader Shelly Russell-Mayhew, registered psychologist and research professor at the Werklund School of Education. 

"We're also increasing the likelihood of weight based bullying in schools when we focus on these externally driven factors like body mass, portion sizes, categorizing foods and reading food labels. That flies in the face of decades of research. We know that focusing on those things does not promote health."

Russell-Mayhew says three points from the letter summarize her concerns:

  1. Reinforcing and emphasis on body weight and shape among students, a risk factor for both obesity and eating disorders.
  2. Increasing the likelihood of weight-based bullying for children of all sizes leading to low self-esteem, social exclusion and negative health outcomes.
  3. Promoting problematic, binary and externally measured indicators of health, rather than realistic, nuanced, and embodied experiences across multiple dimensions of health. 

Russell-Mayhew said an overarching problem with this portion of the curriculum draft is there is a focus primarily on individual behaviour.

"Food choices as it's framed in the curriculum might be pretty limited in families that don't have access to foods that cost more money," she said.

"The simplistic nature and the individualistic focus of these behavioural choices are very problematic because there's much more complexity, especially with children this young. They're probably not making the grocery decisions."

Alberta Education says the draft K-6 physical education curriculum is designed to have students learn about healthy nutrition from a young age, "giving them practical knowledge for a healthy and active life," said press secretary Nicole Sparrow in an email.

"The draft curriculum is also based on research and best practices from other jurisdictions, advice from subject-matter expert advisors and feedback from engagements."

She said there were physical education and wellness teachers on the curriculum working groups who gave input based on their expertise and classroom experience teaching students about nutrition.

Dietitians among those raising concerns

Terri Ney is a registered dietitian and the co-founder of Dietitians 4 Teachers, which provides support, resources and education to teachers throughout Canada for teaching health and wellness in classrooms. 

In the Grade 1 portion of the curriculum, Ney said one thing that jumped out at her is the emphasis on labelling foods as either healthy or unhealthy.

"Students reduce that to good and bad, and what we see with some kids, they'll take that further step and they'll go, 'Oh, I'm good if I eat good food and I'm bad if I eat bad foods.' That's not a message that we want any students to go home with anywhere," she said.

'It is teaching children to judge themselves'

Angela Grace is a former teacher and registered psychologist who focuses on eating disorder prevention and treatment. She said this type of curriculum would teach children to compare themselves to others. 

"It is teaching children to judge themselves, to judge others, to feel insecure, and to doubt what their parents are giving them."

Grace said one part of the draft that stood out to her was that Grade 2 kids would be asked to track their physical activity levels and set fitness goals.

"Kids don't need to do that. They just need to play. They need to run," she said. 

Ney says it's important parents don't forget about this part of the curriculum draft when submitting their feedback to the province. 

"We have the opportunity to make some amazing changes with this reducing harm and reducing the risk for eating disorders, I think that's what's really important here."

The government is holding four virtual feedback sessions in May, and plans to do monthly sessions from June until February 2022.

"As the minister [Adriana LaGrange] has said, she welcomes feedback and hopes as many Albertans as possible review the curriculum for themselves and provide their views," said Sparrow.

Sparrow said over the next year, the province will host formal engagement sessions with education partners and parents to help refine the curriculum before it is implemented in September 2022.

Albertans can share their feedback about the curriculum online. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to education in Alberta. In 2018 she headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alta. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson or reach her by email at lucie.edwardson@cbc.ca

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