Supporting positive body image and self-esteem in children has countless benefits for the children in your classes (1). Implementing strategies that promote positive body image in your school can help create a supportive school environment free from weight bias, weight-based bullying and eating problems among students (2). Having a positive body image helps a child to develop emotional stability, good self-esteem and confidence (1). Promoting positive body image can help to foster a healthier, happier and more productive classroom in which children feel safe, accepted, validated and celebrated.
Here are some suggestions to help you support positive body image for the children in your classes:
Be a role model. Model an approach to your own body, eating and exercise that is flexible and joyful and that supports your health and well-being for the long term (2). Avoid making comments about your own appearance or the appearance of others and avoid talk of dieting and weight loss (1, 2). Let your students know that you participate in activities for physical fitness, well-being and enjoyment (1). Share your experiences with trying new things and learning new skills - describe how you found activities you enjoy. Show that you eat a variety of foods for well-being and enjoyment (3).
Accept your students the way they are. Children are comfortable about the differences among themselves as long as adults don't introduce value judgements and negative comparisons (3). Promote a school culture free from talk of fatness, weight and diets (2). You can do this by avoiding mention of children's weight or appearance, their eating habits and their physical activity behaviour and by encouraging other teachers to do the same (2, 3). It is important to let children be children and to protect them from worry about eating, moving and weight (3).
Celebrate difference in your classroom. Reinforcing the notion that everybody has different body sizes, shapes and physical abilities can help children avoid developing negative attitudes about themselves and other people (1, 3). Share stories of yourself or others - real or fictional - that have defied stereotypes, overcome challenges and found fulfillment through unique skills, abilities and interests (1).
Take a stand against appearance-based bullying. The Ministry of Education recommends that if you witness weight-related bullying, intervene to stop it, discuss the negative effects of such bullying with students and strongly reaffirm the school's policy of zero tolerance for weight bias and bullying (2). Help students create positive social influences by encouraging them to be friends with people who like them as they are (1).
Introduce students to diverse images of wellness, beauty and success (1). Challenge conventional notions of beauty that equate health and success with a particular look or body type (1, 2). Encourage students to think critically about the media and social media messages that they receive - and those they create (1).
Expect children to be capable. Help children to develop good character, common sense, effective ways of responding to feelings, problem-solving skills and the ability to get along with others (3). Create environments that foster resilience by developing caring relationships with students, appreciating their individual strengths and providing opportunities for them to participate in the school or community in meaningful ways (4).
Support children as they explore their unique interests in physical activities. Reinforce the idea that everyone is different and so will probably like different physical activities (e.g., individual and team activities, informal and organized activities).
"Provide, don't deprive" (5). Support children in staying in tune with their bodies. Help them to continue to enjoy eating. Children are born wanting to eat and knowing how much to eat and are inclined to grow in the way that nature intended (3). To help your students maintain their enjoyment of eating, avoid singling out students based on the foods they bring to school or labelling foods as good or bad, which can make children feel guilty and ashamed (1, 3). Instead, emphasize eating well and being active for all students, regardless of weight and shape (2). It is also important to support eating environments in your school that enable children to eat mindfully, so they can pay attention to and enjoy their meals and so they can know if they are feeling hungry or if they are satisfied (3).
Reinforce messages about eating well at home: If families seek information about nutrition, direct them to resources created by Registered Dietitians that have a balanced approach to eating that feels supportive and positive. Encourage strategies and programs, such as school snack and meal programs, that support food security for all children and families (3).
"When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers" (4) - Ellyn Satter
For more information on supporting children and families in eating well, visit ellynsatterinstitute.org. This site provides evidence-based, practical solutions for eating well that are based on a "division of responsibility in feeding" that takes the pressure off eating and helps children become competent eaters (6). The division of responsibility positions parents and caregivers as responsible for what, when and where a child eats; the child is responsible for how much and whether to eat.6 Educators can support this dynamic and children's inborn eating capabilities by providing leadership and giving autonomy (4).
Want to learn more about helping your students eat healthy and stay active? Visit and sign up for their electronic newsletter to keep you up to date on relevant nutrition news and events and provide tips and activity ideas to help you promote health in your classroom and school. Geared to elementary school teachers, this informative newsletter is written by Registered Dietitians and teachers.
1 National Eating Disorder Information Centre. Beyond images: a self-esteem and body image curriculum: backgrounder and tip for teachers: grades 4-6, 2013.http://www.beyondimages.ca/sites/default/files/beyond-images-backgrounder4-6.pdf.
2 Ontario Ministry of Education. Supporting minds: an educator's guide to promoting students' mental health and well-being (draft), 2013.http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/reports/SupportingMinds.pdf.
3 Satter E. Your child's weight: helping without harming. Absolute Advantage 2006;5(3):14-17.http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/cms-assets/documents/99558-588624.ycwhwh.pdf.
4 Satter E. Secrets of feeding a healthy family. Madison, WI: Kelcy Press, 2008.
5 Satter E. Provide, don't deprive, at school, 2014.http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/htf/providedontdepriveatschool.php.
6 Satter E. Ellyn Satter's division of responsibility in feeding, 2014.http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/dor/divisionofresponsibilityinfeeding.php.