Simple breakfast change that can increase children’s academic performance at school

By Staff 9 Min Read

Eating breakfast is important for teenagers, even if they are reluctant to eat it. Breakfast provides the energy the brain and body need to function through the day

A simple change to your child’s morning routine could boost their performance at school, according to Professor Andrew J Martin.

He emphasises the importance of breakfast for teenagers, despite their often reluctance to eat it, as it provides the energy needed for the brain and body to function throughout the day. In a recent study, researchers investigated the impact of breakfast on students’ motivation to learn and their academic achievement at school. They also examined whether the type of breakfast – healthy, unhealthy or none at all – made a difference.

As educational psychology researchers, they aim to find ways to enhance student learning. Unlike factors such as teaching quality, which are out of a student’s control, or study skills, which can take time to improve, breakfast is something students can immediately control. This is also an issue that schools could quickly address. The researchers wanted to determine if eating breakfast influences students’ motivation and achievement, and if the healthiness of the breakfast matters.

As part of an Australian Research Council project, they studied 648 Australian high school students from five private schools in New South Wales. Two of these schools were single-sex boys’ schools, two were single-sex girls’ schools and one was co-educational, reports Wales Online.

The students were in Years 7 to 9, with an average age of 13 to 14 years. The study was conducted during students’ science lessons and consisted of three main parts. Firstly, students filled out an online survey about their breakfast habits. We asked whether they had breakfast that morning and what they typically eat for breakfast.

Using national dietary guidelines as a reference, experts scored how often students ate healthy breakfast foods like fruits and vegetables, dairy and protein, wholegrains and cereals, and water. They also asked how frequently they consumed an unhealthy breakfast, including sugary soft drinks, processed meats, fast food, unhealthy bakery goods and unhealthy snacks.

A higher score indicated a healthier breakfast habit. Secondly, they rated their motivation in science lessons, including their confidence in doing science schoolwork, how much they valued the subject, and their focus on learning. Thirdly, students took a test based on content from the NSW science syllabus.

In essence, the study provided a glimpse into a day in the life of students. Experts also asked questions about their personal background, their usual performance in science, and certain classroom features (including the time of the lesson) to account for these factors in our findings.

It was discovered that students who had a healthy breakfast on the morning of the study showed higher levels of motivation and achievement. For instance, they displayed increased confidence and focus during their science lessons, and their test scores in the subject were higher. In contrast, students who skipped breakfast showed lower levels of motivation and achievement.

The study read: “What did surprise us was students who had no breakfast had similarly low levels of motivation and achievement to those students who had an unhealthy breakfast. This suggests eating an unhealthy breakfast could be as disruptive to motivation and achievement as not eating breakfast at all.

“Because we also looked at students’ previous science results, the study showed that even if they had previously performed well in science, they could still score low in motivation and achievement if they had not had breakfast or had eaten an unhealthy one.

“Although our study could not dig into specific reasons for this, it is likely because eating the wrong kinds of foods does not properly fuel the mind or body for what is needed to optimally “switch on” academically.

“It is also important to note the students in our study were from private schools. Although we took a student’s family background into account, the socioeconomic aspect of eating breakfast requires further investigation. It could be that the benefits of a healthy breakfast are larger in a more diverse sample of students. Our findings emphasise the importance of students eating a healthy breakfast each and every morning.”

Schools can help ensure this by:

  • offering a healthy breakfast to students

  • offering a healthy morning snack

  • teaching students about the importance of a healthy breakfast (for example, as part of health and wellbeing syllabus units)

  • giving parents information about the importance of healthy breakfasts, meal ideas and strategies for giving this to their children

But schools will need to be mindful of and address barriers to a healthy breakfast. For example, there will be situations where school-provided breakfasts and morning snacks will need to be free. In such cases, it is also possible some students may not want a free breakfast if there is a stigma attached to it (if it is seen as only being for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds).

It is also worth recognising some students may have body image concerns and not want to eat a snack or breakfast at school. In addition, cultural and dietary differences may mean some foods are not appropriate for some students.

If these barriers are effectively managed, our study shows a small and relatively achievable change in a student’s life – a healthy breakfast each day – can have a positive academic impact.

This article was written for The Conversation by Andrew J. Martin, Scientia Professor and Professor of Educational Psychology, UNSW Sydney; Emma Burns, ARC DECRA Fellow and Senior Lecturer, Macquarie University; Joel Pearson, Professor of cognitive neuroscience, UNSW Sydney; Keiko C.P. Bostwick, Postdoctoral research fellow, UNSW Sydney and Roger Kennett, Researcher in educational neuroscience, UNSW Sydney

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