Middle-schoolers Cassidy Ward and DeAndre Foote consider soft drink options.
Middle-schoolers Cassidy Ward and DeAndre Foote consider soft drink options.

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A program to help middle-schoolers find their own way toward healthy food choices is finding success.

This story was originally published in February 2012, but has been updated with new information.

By Taylor Sisk

When you’re a seventh-grader, the world is your oyster. Or maybe it’s your carrot stick. But more probably, it’s your Twix.

Teaching kids to make their own wiser health choices at an age when everything seems possible – when the notion of charting one’s own path is just taking seed in the psyche – is the foundation of the Motivating Adolescents with Technology to Choose Health, or MATCH, program.

Middle-schoolers Cassidy Ward and DeAndre Foote consider soft drink options. Photo credit: MATCH

The switch from Twix to a carrot, said the program’s founder, has got to be a kid’s own choice.

“We’re the most successful public school-based child obesity intervention in the literature” said Tim Hardison, who created the program while he was still making a living standing in front of kids teaching every day.

Leaders from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust decided this child-focused approach to healthy living was worth pursuing further and in 2012 donated funds to expand it from six eastern counties to 11.

Now, three years later, the program has published results showing its continued success. This year, MATCH was designated as a “research-tested” intervention, the most rigorous classification for a school-based program.

Not overburdening

MATCH was launched in 2006 in Martin County, in rural eastern North Carolina, by Hardison, who now directs the program under the auspices of the Pediatric Healthy Weight Research and Treatment Center at East Carolina University. Hardison works closely with Suzanne Lazorick, a PHWRTC pediatrician and obesity researcher.

In September 2006, Hardison, then a seventh-grade science teacher at Williamston Middle School, read a study published by Harvard University researchers that said Martin County had the shortest life expectancy of any county in North Carolina. He wanted to know why, and what he could do about it.

He learned that Martin County was 87 percent above the state average in the incidence of diabetes and also above average in cardiovascular disease.

He also learned about body mass index, which measures body fat. He introduced the idea to his students, then had them test themselves. Sixty-four of 110 kids were determined to be either overweight or obese, meaning that as they grew older they would be at risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea and more.

Hardison wanted to work with his students to help them live healthier lives, but knew that for any new curriculum to be effective it would have to be integrated into what schools already offered.

“I knew that if we were going to try to address childhood obesity through the schools,” he said, “we needed to create a program that would work within the school day, within their standard course of study, so we were not adding additional responsibilities to an overburdened teacher’s daily schedule.”

“BMIs are not published at the end of the year, but test scores are,” said Hardison, who added that teachers need to buy into the program for it to be successful. “So you have to create a model that’s a win-win for them.”

Thus, MATCH was born.

‘Up to them’

MATCH combines physical activity, nutritional education and information technology, while adhering to the seventh-grade N.C. Standard Course of Study.

“We have had fantastic results,” said April Rose, a physical education and health teacher at Pamlico County Middle School. “The teachers love it because it follows the essential standards and outlines lesson plans for the students.”

In math class, students learn how to calculate their own BMIs. They keep exercise logs and enter them into Excel spreadsheets.[pullquote_right]“The way you make change in a household is you educate a seventh-grader, arm them with knowledge, and then you can’t shut them up.”[/pullquote_right]

“You show them that [spreadsheets] can help them do their math,” Hardison said, “and they think it’s pretty neat.”

They keep journals, develop their own wellness goals and self-assess their progress.

“We don’t single kids out as being overweight or obese,” Hardison said. Everyone is given the same lessons on healthy eating and being active.”

“We bring this whole wellness idea into the forefront of a kid’s mind, and everything ties together,” he said. “It’s interdisciplinary.”

Hardison said he believes a fundamental difference between MATCH and other wellness programs is that he only minimally involves parents.

“Kids are a little rebellious at this age,” he said. “If they think they know something their parents don’t, they’re liable to use it. “The way you make change in a household is you educate a seventh-grader, arm them with knowledge, and then you can’t shut them up.”

Lazorick likes the results: As the program has expanded, she said, it’s common that 50 to 75 percent of students who were overweight at the start of the program weigh less after they finish. More than 75 percent of students have improved cardiovascular fitness, as measured by a fitness test.

And she agrees that seventh grade is a good time to introduce this curriculum.

“I believe that there is something special about the young-adolescent age, developmentally, what’s going on psychologically and cognitively,” she said. “They’re wanting to separate from their parents.”

“What we’re trying to do is empower these kids with the knowledge to make good choices,” Hardison said, “and then it’s up to them.”

Encouraging results

Choice of beverages is an area in which Hardison believes the program can have an immediate and important effect. Students do a taste testing of low-cal beverages, soft drinks and powdered drinks.

“It’s like a wine tasting, where the kids sip and rate,” he said. They’re then encouraged to switch to a healthier choice that suits their palates.

Hardison said that some 80 percent have found a healthier alternative than sugar-laden soft drinks.

Hardison and Lazorick have published several papers on their results, which show consistently that seven out of 10 students have improved BMI scores.

And the results stick, Hardison said. Their research shows kids retain the learning well into late adolescence.

“You’ve got a small window where these kids are easily motivated, and we’ve got to grab that window and try to instill those healthy behaviors when we’ve got the chance” Hardison said.

The program has gone from schools in Eastern North Carolina to Cherokee County, South Carolina. Now Hardison needs to find 70 more schools over the coming two years to scale up.

Lazorick would like to see it disseminated further still – a cost-effective program that’s successful in reducing obesity, taught within the schools, with resources that are already there.

“The potential,” she said, “is phenomenal.”

Additional reporting provided by Rose Hoban.

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