FRC News

Implementing health promotion programs in alternative schools

Miranda DellaMaria
3/16/2016  2:15 pm

Studies have consistently shown that young girls are at an incredibly high risk for developing low self-esteem and negative body image, which over time could develop into disordered eating behaviors. “It’s necessary to give girls a chance to talk about these topics, and really try and help them understand what healthy eating behaviors are,” said Graduate Student Jaclyn Saltzman, who recently co-authored an article about a health-oriented program for adolescent girls.

The article, “Holistic Health Promotion for Adolescent Girls in an Alternative School Setting: Lessons Learned,” written by Saltzman, Associate Professor Janet Liechty, and Undergraduate Researcher Elizabeth Badskey, was published in November, 2015 in the School of Social Work Journal. It summarized the effects of the Healthy Eating and Achievement by Teens program (HEAT) that the researchers implemented at an alternative school last year.

Five girls, grades 8 through 10, were chosen by school administrators for the program, which focused on teaching healthy eating behaviors and positive body image to young girls. “There hasn’t been as much health-oriented research done on alternative school children as there has been done on mainstream schools,” said Saltzman, “so we found it important to give these kids a safe space to discuss issues like body image, nutrition, puberty, media, and diversity. It was a place for them to just be teenagers, rather than teenagers in an alternative school.”

The program ran for eleven weeks, and covered a wide range of topics including body image, eating behaviors, media bias, and nutrition. “The girls definitely had a say in what we talked about for the day,” said Saltzman. “Many times they would take the conversation in a different direction than what we had planned, but at the end of the day that was what was most important to them, so we let them go with it.”

The researchers also tailored the course to fit the student’s interests in order to make the material more relatable. “A lot of Beyoncé music videos were used,” Saltzman said with a laugh. “It got them really engaged.” As the course also focused on teaching students to have positive body image, the instructors wanted to put emphasis on body diversity. “Part of that was just acknowledging that the bodies they see in Western media are not necessarily the bodies that they have,” said Saltzman. “My favorite piece of feedback we got from the girls at the end of the program was, ‘I learned that being skinny doesn’t make you healthy’.”

There were some barriers to access along the way for the students involved, Saltzman and Badskey acknowledged. “We live in a community where sometimes the roads can be blocked up with snow or bad weather, and if you live too far out of town it might be too difficult for you to come in for that day or two because it’s unsafe,” said Badskey. In order to assure students were caught up on the material, the instructors were sure to incorporate brief review sessions at both the beginnings and ends of each lecture. Incentives were also provided to students in order to encourage attendance. “We would usually bring in new and different types of fruit as a snack,” said Saltzman. “Something that the students may not have tried before—something healthy that wasn’t processed.”

Both Saltzman and Badskey stress that the willingness of the school administrators to collaborate with them on this project was imperative to its success. The program used a Community Based Participatory Research Framework (CBPR) which encourages researchers to work concurrently with community members in order to ensure the program is meeting their needs as well.

“You have to tailor it depending on what the school’s constraints are, what particular laws and policies exist in the county you’re working in,” said Saltzman. “By using the CBPR framework, you have a basis for including students that the teachers recommend, and can say, ‘well our sample size might not be very large, but it was a sample in need of this particular service’.”

The instructors were also surprised in the end by how much the girls were able to open up to them about some of the more difficult topics covered. Ice breakers were used to both help the girls get comfortable with one another, and to establish a more fun and open atmosphere for the discussions that followed.

“From the feedback we got from the girls, they seemed very happy with the program and really seemed to have learned a lot,” said Saltzman. “Again, it was only 11 weeks, 50 minutes a week, but just a little bit of consistent presence really helped these girls feel comfortable with us. It was really rewarding to see the barriers they had up in the beginning be slowly brought down as they started to open up.”

Though the program has ended, Saltzman said that the school they worked with has now adopted some practices that are similar to ones found in the Healthy Eating and Achievement by Teens program that they are now using on a more consistent basis. Both researchers found that the study proved that it is possible to enact change with consistent interaction, even within a short amount of time. Said Badskey, “I think this project showed that you can integrate this sort of curriculum with this population and school, and working together the students can learn, and they can grow with time and meaningful connection.”