DIT research shows training of pre-school managers leads to major improvement in nutrition & health in schools


New research findings based on a five-year study have demonstrated significant improvements in key pre-school practices that are important in the fight against childhood obesity. Commenting on the results, leading expert on early childcare, DIT’s Professor Nóirín Hayes said:

“The findings of this study are extremely important as they provide, for the first time, detailed data on health related practices in the Irish pre-school setting and demonstrate that education of pre-school managers through a structured incentive project can significantly improve these practices.”

The study, which has been published in Public Health Nutrition, observed that training of pre-school managers had led to three positive changes to practice in pre-schools in the area studied.  The first change related to the types of food and drinks and the portion sizes served to the children; the second related to staff sitting and engaging with children about the food provided, including involving children in the preparation, serving and routine of mealtimes; and the third change involved ensuring children were equipped with appropriate outdoor clothing so that adequate outdoor time and opportunity for physical activity was provided.

This research was undertaken by a Health Service Executive (HSE) Community Dietitian, and doctoral research student with Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), Charlotte Johnston Molloy, in association with safefood.  A specially developed pre-school health promotion resource and evaluation tool was used to educate, promote and appraise best practice in the child-care setting.  An award scheme incentive element was also incorporated to motivate pre-schools to maintain positive practices over time.

The results are based on a detailed and extensive study which took place in 42 full day-care pre-schools registered with the HSE in the midlands of Ireland and the research was evaluated over a five-year period.  Managers in a number of pre-schools were up-skilled, and the impact of the training on the quality of food provided, the food service, and physical activity patterns of the children, was assessed.   While some interventions in child-care settings must rely on self-reporting, this study involved direct observation of practice, with the researcher spending one full day in each pre-school, both before and after each pre-school manager was trained. Many children worldwide now spend more than 20 hours per week in childcare, and Irish children are no different, with Irish 3 year olds spending on average 23 hours per week in out of home care.

According to lead author of the study, Dr Charlotte Johnston Molloy, the results emerging from this research not only showed initial positive changes but also a commitment to continuance of the project in the community.

“We know that healthy habits learned in childhood have been shown to track into adulthood and can help prevent conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease in later life.  Food and physical activity practices learned in childhood have been found to remain with children as they move into adolescence and adulthood.  The childcare setting has the potential to play a pivotal role in childhood obesity prevention.”

Commenting that health promotion until now has focused on schools; Johnston Molloy says the pre-school setting has been largely overlooked. “There is an onus on health care practitioners to target the pre-school setting, to observe and establish actual practice, and to then work with these services to ensure that children in their care are receiving optimum nutrition, food service practices and physical activity opportunities.  As this age group have no voice of their own they need careful attention and support to ensure the care that they receive is based on best practice.”

Dr Marian Faughnan, Chief Specialist in Nutrition at safefood said “this project has shown that many pre-schools with support are willing and able to make changes to improve the diets of the children in their care. Knowing the appropriate serving sizes of different foods was one area that pre-schools needed help on. We are delighted to have developed a serving size guide produced within the project into a resource that was distributed to preschools in Ireland”.

Dr Clare Corish, lecturer in Human Nutrition and Dietetics in DIT and academic supervisor of the study, said  “this carefully evaluated intervention study has shown that sustainable positive changes were achieved in a cost-effective manner; this is particularly valuable in economically challenging times”.

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