Breakfast club pupils show 30% improvement in class

A school is seeing students’ concentration levels rise by supplying them the most important meal of the day. Claire O’Sullivan reports.

AT 8.15am every morning, up to 150 pupils from a Co Tipperary secondary school settle down for a full breakfast.

Since the National School Completion Programme started a breakfast club at Coláiste Chluain Meala Junior School two years ago, teachers have recorded a 30% improvement in punctuality and improved pupil concentration and discipline.

"The teachers in the school had completed a survey of need. They felt that most of the pupils weren't having breakfast in the morning and it was having an impact on their school performance. Many didn't eat until break-time when they went for a fizzy drink and chocolate for an immediate energy rush," said Clonmel school completion co-ordinator Tina Kennedy.

The Department of Social and Family Affairs funds day-to-day running of the breakfast club while the 15,000 necessary to build a kitchen was provided by the AIB Better Ireland Scheme and local industry.

On the menu each day is cereal or porridge, tea, toast, a probiotic yogurt drink and fruit.

"We'll have Cornflakes, Weetabix or Rice Krispies. There is no point giving Bran Flakes as they won't be eaten and they'll fill themselves with four slices of toast instead. The kids will regularly look for the very sugary cereals and we'll offer them for a week as a treat before the holidays," she said. "Students are beginning class with their batteries fully charged. They have better concentration and are more receptive to learning and can sustain the effort until lunchtime," principal Charlie McGeever said.

Such was the success of the club the School Completion Programme has also started giving a substantial lunch, at a cost of just 1.

"A local vegetable provider sells us vegetables and we make homemade soup every day. We'll roast a few chickens another day and make chicken soup. We also serve packet soup as an option as they need variety from day-to-day. A cheese, tuna or ham roll is also offered, and fruit," Ms Kennedy explained.

Sweets, chocolate and fizzy drink machines are banned in the school. Anyone staying for supervised study is given a fruit drink, a cereal bar and fruit.

"Most kids have taken up the offer. They were shy at the start but now they're happy to come in and eat with their friends. They'll always say please and thank you and help load the dishwasher and the like. "Even beyond the great results that the scheme has had on school performance, there is a social aspect to the scheme that we didn't expect. The principal and teachers eat with the students and a rapport has been built up. They'll often get a chance to chat that wasn't available before."

Senior researcher at Oxford University's Physiology Laboratory, Dr Alex Richardson is on a mission to warn people of the importance of a balanced diet. She helped set up a charity, Food and Behaviour (FAB) Research, aimed at probing the links between diet and a range of neurodevelopmental disorders including dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and schizophrenia.

"There are many factors behind these problems, but to deny the role of nutrition completely is indefensible. W hat we eat has changed hugely over the past 50 years. The physical risks to children of a highly processed, highly refined diet lacking in fruit and vegetables are acknowledged, but the damage done to their behaviour, learning abilities and mood is not."

In Ireland, parents of children with autism are increasingly examining their children's diet to see if it can calm some of the behaviours associated with the illness.

According to parents, many of the children have intolerance to casein in milk and gluten in flour.

Fish oils such as Omega 3, which boosts brain function, and Omega-6 fats, which are known as chemical building blocks for the brain, are also being given as supplements.

"We did a urine test on our son Robert, which revealed that he was casein and gluten intolerant. We'd been advised to do the test by other parents. Within three weeks of coming off both, his eye contact and concentration had improved and his bowel movements had normalised. The best for us was that he slept all night," said Kieran Kennedy, Irish Progressive Association for Autism (IPAA) Director.

"It is very hard to alter a child's diet and we got great help from our dietician. I would have to stress to parents that if they are considering a child's diet to consult with a dietician. There are a lot of well-intentioned parents out there who are tampering with diets just because of something they read on the internet."

According to Dr Alex Richardson, "when it comes to foods that affect children's brains, the quantity and type of fat is the number one issue". Dr Richardson says studies have shown that, trans fats, the man-made fat found in cakes, pastries and snacks, can be incorporated into the brain's physical structure making its membrane less flexible and fluid, altering the signalling capacity of brain cells.

Controversial studies have claimed that the wrong type of fat in a child's diet may be a factor in dyslexia, dyspraxia (formerly known as clumsy child syndrome) and ADHD.

While the food industry has dismissed any link between brain function and trans fats, the US Food and Drinks Administration has confirmed these fats raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.

Researchers at the Medical University of the South Carolina showed that rats with a high trans fat intake, where it made up 10% of their diet, could not perform tasks as well as those on a soy bean oil diet.

Sugary drinks, sweets and cereals, are also on Dr Richardson's bad list. She claims they disturb brain function by creating energy highs and lows, as within two hours of eating the sugar dense food the child's blood sugar will have gone into free-fall leading to mood swings, an inability to concentrate and irritability.

The Department of Social and Family Affairs provided E6.3 million this year for school meals. Two years ago, just E3.2 million was spent in this area but it is becoming increasingly popular according to officials with up 77,000 pupils now benefiting from meals in up to 730 schools.

A Review of the Urban Schools Meals Schemes was completed in 2003. It concluded that evidence set out in reports and research papers, as well as the relevant expert opinion, supports the view that nutritional intake and cognitive ability are inextricably linked.

Therefore, it held, nutritionally deficient food impacts negatively on one's ability to learn and benefit from the educational system.

The department funds 50% of the food costs under the urban scheme and the relevant local authority funds the remaining 50%. Under the local projects scheme, a set amount of funding is given for each child fed under the scheme. For breakfast, 60 cents is provided, with 1.40 for light meals and 1.90 for dinners.

The type and range of meals provided, as well as the delivery and supply of meals, are decided by the individual local groups and schools that operate the projects but are governed by nutritional guidelines, according to the department.

FAB is concerned that the massive changes in children's diets over the past 50 years have not been systematically assessed for their effects on the brain.

"If you pump in very high levels of sugar the chances are that the youngster is going to get hooked on the stimulation of brain opioids. When you withdraw it the poor little child's brain is probably stressed, especially when you go past the sweet counter in the supermarket. The brain is a greedy organ. It has phenomenal nutritional requirements. It comprises 2% of body mass yet uses more than 20% of available energy. It takes a third of the blood from the heart to supply it with the nutrients it needs to work. Not surprisingly, it doesn't seem to work so well without them," said Dr Richardson's colleague, Bernard Gesch.

Three years ago, Mr Gesch released the results of a dietary experiment conducted at Aylesbury young offenders institution.

More than 200 inmates took part in a placebo-controlled test where they were given multi-vitamin, mineral and fatty-acid supplements that brought their intake up to official levels.

Anti-social behaviour fell by 25% and violent incidents by 35% among offenders given the supplements. There was no change in the placebo group. "It raises the important question of what would have happened to these men if they had been nourished properly in their young lives," he said.

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