Junkfood Science: Universal child care — Are our children better parented by the government?

November 06, 2007

Universal child care — Are our children better parented by the government?

Judy Aron at Consent of the Governed has been discussing thought-provoking issues in her series on growing efforts to create universal government preschools. State-run preschools have already been introduced in a number of states across the country. Promoters for institutionalizing 3, 4 and 5 year olds, she writes, believe parents are incapable of raising their own children without the government’s help. Not only that, but the belief that it gives kids a vital head start in academic success has not been shown to be true in sound research.

I’ve uncovered another troubling initiative behind national Head Start programs. These massively funded programs have mandated the teaching of ‘healthy eating’ and exercise to more than 1 million 3, 4 and 5 year olds to eradicate obesity. Especially troubling is the movement to federalize all child care to combat childhood obesity.

At first blush, nationalized preschools might seem like a way to help poor and minority children, but regardless of how well-intentioned, Aron provides another viewpoint, writing:

Universal Preschool -—Institutionalizing 3,4 and 5 Year Olds

Home Education Magazine recently published a great article by Larry and Susan Kaseman entitled “Let's Not Institutionalize 3, 4, and 5 Year Olds." It is an enlightening read....There is big money and lots of pressure to make preschool more widely available, and perhaps even mandatory. For homeschoolers in some states, this might mean that there would be an increase in the number of years that homeschooled children are accountable to the state, for testing, review and approval of curriculum, and even preschool health screenings.

The push for universal preschool is one that is more about money than it is about benefiting children. $chool$ can grow their budget$, teacher$ have to be credentialed by universitie$ and other program$, curriculum is $old, teacher member$hip roll$ are increa$ed... etc. It'$ a huge moneymaker for those involved in the early childhood field, and let'$ not forget the health professional$ that will be involved in early childhood $creening. Ye$, it'$ big money, and all on the taxpayer'$ dime.

Besides the costs of government-run preschools, her series has been discussing the research on the effectiveness of these programs. She’s also made an observation that has echoed through many childhood obesity initiatives targeting minority and poor children. In describing recent lobbyist presentations, she noted that their talk of negligent, incapable underprivileged parents “sounded like veiled stereotypical racism.”

She says she is not entirely against preschools and has used them at times, too, but that she and early childhood development experts believe that learning is natural in toddlers and that parents, not experts, are needed and perfectly capable. She voices concerns that institutional settings are stressful on children and families, while not being optimal learning environments or best for the development of all toddlers. Responding to her state representative saying that parents are not serving their child “properly” if they wait until age 5 to enter them into the system, Aron says that “reinforces the absurd idea that parents are somehow inadequate to teach their children to speak, to read, to socialize, to do just about everything parents have been teaching their children to do since the beginning of time.” She adds:

Supporters of Universal Preschool apparently seem to believe that parents, especially poor minority urban parents, are incapable of raising their own kids without the government's help. They keep talking about closing the achievement gap — but in reality preschool has been found to have little impact in doing that....All kids will eventually learn their colors and numbers, shapes and letters and how to hold a scissor. Making them learn it sooner doesn't make them any smarter. If anything, the forced memorization or structured learning will make them hate “learning" and squash their natural interest in exploration. Young kids need to learn in their own way - on their own terms - in their own time. It just makes you wonder what it is they really want to instill in these kids in such a young age.

Her series, and the links she provides, makes interesting food for thought. One article from the UK, ahead of the U.S. in socialized programs, offered a troubling look at what could be our future and is worth a special note. The Telegraph reported:

A national curriculum for babies

Every baby attending a day nursery or who is in the care of a childminder will be taught a new national curriculum devised by Whitehall, it was announced yesterday. Childminders and nurseries will be under a legal duty to teach the Early Years Foundation Stage to children “from birth" until the age of three. Inspectors from Ofsted will check that the children are developing in four “distinct curriculum headings." This will include becoming “competent learners," for which they will be expected to have mastered such skills as comparing, categorising and recognising symbols and marks.

It is the first time that the Government has prescribed what children should learn under the age of three, when they enter the Foundation Stage of learning which lasts until the end of their first year at school. Teachers and parents expressed alarm at the regulation of child development. One group called the new curriculum “absolute madness."...Margaret Morrissey, [National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations] spokesman, said: “From the minute you are born and your parents go back to work, as the Government has encouraged them to do, you are going to be ruled by the Department for Education."...

The framework will have the same compulsory force as the national curriculum, which lays down what children learn at school....The curriculum will divide a baby's development into four broad areas: heads up, lookers and communicators; sitters, standers and explorers; movers, shakers and players; and walkers, talkers and pretenders. There will be four aspects, each containing a check list of components: a strong child, a skilful communicator, a competent learner and a healthy child....

Inspectors will want to see if pupils are meeting the four components of “a healthy child," including being able to express “joy, sadness, frustration and fear, leading to the development of strategies to cope with new, challenging or stressful situations." [read rest here]

Which brings us to the compulsory curriculums for preschoolers at 2,700 federally-managed Head Start programs around the United States.

Background: Head Start against obesity

The federal Head Start program was launched in 1965 and began as an eight-week summer program staffed by volunteers to serve 561,000 poor preschool children, with a budget of $96.4 million. Over subsequent years, the program has grown to become more comprehensive and include Early Head Start, serving children from birth to age 3, pregnant women, and families. Its budget has grown, too. Earlier this year, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies approved over $6.96 billion for its next budget (FY 2008).

This ‘Improving Head Start Act of 2007,’ not only authorized an additional $450 million for Head Start over last fiscal year’s budget, it mandated the identification of the mental health of the children and their families, and required Head Start to decrease childhood obesity in its students.

Since the Surgeon General’s Call to Action on obesity in 2001, the Head Start program has been brought into action against childhood obesity, with an especially intense program focusing on minorities through the Indian Health Service. Head Start programs are also required to complete “nutritional assessments” of each child to identify child overweight.

You would think that, with the fate of a million children in its hands, this government program would be founded on the best scientific evidence. Head Start’s childhood obesity programs illustrate otherwise.

Head Start’s ‘Healthy Kids’ curriculum

While other toddlers and preschoolers are playing with blocks and learning colors and shapes, little ones 3, 4 and 5 years old are enrolled in Head Start’s compulsory “Healthy Kids” program and are expected to learn nutritional principles and ‘healthy eating.' This program makes obesity prevention a priority.

“Young children are the prime audience for prevention initiatives where early education on healthy habits can be taught and incorporated into their daily lifestyle,” the program description states. As we’ve covered here extensively, such concepts are beyond the grasp of elementary to high school students, let alone preschoolers, nor has any healthy eating counseling been shown to be effective.

There is simply no credible scientific support for the ‘Healthy Kids’ initiatives or its claims. Let’s look at two key positions in its program.

· “Obesity: the number one health risk.” The program’s description begins by claiming that 25-30% of children are “obese” and that it’s the leading contributor to premature death. To support this unsound claim, it references an old paper from 1987, rather than current statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which have shown that the incidences of ‘childhood overweight’ have not increased since the late 1990s and that today’s children are expected to live longer than ever before.

· “Obesity-Sugar Link.” The Head Start program focuses on limiting sugar to prevent obesity, as well as to protect against cancer, osteoporosis and heart disease. Cited as evidence for these and other popular claims about sugar are two press releases issued by CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest). Not only is there no sound scientific evidence for such fears and initiatives, the Head Start program is so restrictive it claims “no more than 8% of total daily calories should come from added sugar.” For that claim, it references an outdated 15 year old USDA Home and Garden Bulletin, but there is no government guideline or expert body that recommends such stringent sugar restrictions for children. The current Dietary Guidelines 2005 makes no specific recommendations for added sugars. The expert panel of the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences recently suggested that added sugars not exceed 25% of total calories because of concerns that sugars beyond that could replace more nutritious foods (something can be said about any single ingredient in excess). Nor is there any evidence that reducing sugars will prevent obesity.

In fact, after more than 16 years, there is no evidence in support of the effectiveness of any government Head Start program in reducing childhood obesity. Yet the introduction of new childhood obesity initiatives continue.

Head Start’s NikeGo curriculum

Little ones at 437 national Head Start programs are being enrolled in “NikeGo Head Start,” which teaches the need for physical activity to prevent ‘unhealthy’ lifestyles and obesity. Once again, health and body issues are not concepts tiny tots need or should be worrying about or can appropriately understand. Nike is the largest private funder of the National Head Start Association (NHSA), the private organization which lobbies for Head Start programs in the U.S. The NHSA’s second largest grant source, according to its 2007 Annual Report, is Johnson & Johnson.

A recent NHSA press release, announcing the expansion of the NikeGo program, states:

Nike is issuing a series of one-year grants, with specific performance requirements, totaling $2.5 million over five years....NHSA President and CEO Sarah Greene said: “We are excited to continue our partnership with Nike and look forward to continuing to educate parents and teachers in the importance of stressing physical activity from an early age as an important tool in combating childhood obesity, which has been a growing problem in our country over the past few years. Head Start has always focused on the entire family, not just the kids, as an important component of their education and development. The Let Me Play Head Start Initiative teaches parents along with their kids so physical activity becomes a family activity.”

Nike, Inc. has had a high profile in lobbying for a “childhood inactivity crisis” and childhood obesity legislation. As recently reviewed, NikeGo co-founded Shaping America’s Youth in 2003, contributing more than $10.5 million that year alone, to coordinate the government’s childhood obesity goals, develop a national action plan and its clinical guidelines. SAY is partnered with the American Obesity Association, the Office of the Surgeon General, HHS, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Diabetes Association, American College of Sports Medicine, University of California Davis, and the North American Association for the Study of Obesity.

Head Start’s CHILE

A trial was just launched to experiment on Hispanic and Native American children in 16 Head Start programs in rural New Mexico. This new initiative, Child Health Initiative for Lifelong Eating and Exercise (CHILE), will attempt to increase physical activity; increase the intake of whole grains and produce; lower dietary fat; and reduce television and screen time among 3 to 5 year olds to see if obesity is reduced. It is recruiting now and is expected to be completed in June 2010.

Of course, there is no scientific support that any such interventions — no matter how well-intentioned, comprehensive, restrictive, intensive, long in duration, and tackling diet and activity in every possible way — can reduce the onset of obesity or demonstrate improved health outcomes. This was even the conclusion of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, after reviewing 40 years of evidence. And, just as countless other such programs have failed, there’s no reason to think this one will be any different.

The move for federal child care

Nevertheless, the federal Head Start program is already being heralded as the model for obesity prevention programs, as in a position paper from Futures of Children. Incredibly, the authors made this assertion even while their own review of the evidence found that no Head Start obesity prevention program for preschool children has been effective in reducing obesity or in making long-term changes in diet and activity.

Authored by the director and deputy director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy Eating Research Program, it also pushed for the need of the federal government to take over oversight of all child care in the country. As they wrote, “weak state standards governing physical activity and nutrition represent a missed opportunity to combat obesity.” Child care providers not regulated by states were a special concern to them, stating:

Nonregulated providers need not comply with state regulations and are not subject to state enforcement. Some family child care providers caring for small numbers of children are also exempt from regulation, and some states exempt certain types of center-based programs, such as those run by religious groups, school-based preschool, schoolbased after-school programs, or centers operating part-day or part-year only.... Typically child care centers are most heavily regulated, followed by large family and group child care homes, with small family child care homes the least heavily regulated. As noted, many states exempt small family child care homes from licensing requirements and instead rely on voluntary registration.

To determine the quality of child care, these authors looked at state child care licensing standards for how they regulated and enforced “nutrition, physical activity and media use.” The variations among the states led to their conclusion that “much of the care available in the United States is poor to mediocre.” They concluded:

Largely ignored in the nation’s obesity dialogue so far has been the food and physical activity environment in child care settings. But child care represents an untapped rich source of strategies to help children acquire positive healthy habits to prevent obesity.

Universal child care

The common theme throughout the universal preschool movement, as Aron noted, is that we are to believe that only the government knows best how children should be fed, exercised, educated and raised.

When we hear about universal government-run preschool or child care for all of our nation’s children, taking a critical look might most help our kids.

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

Bookmark and Share