A Unique Child: Health and well-being - Focus on food

Getting parents on board a healthy eating initiative when it is at odds with their long-time habits is a tricky process requiring sensitive communication, as Alison Tonkin, Cath Alderson and Gill Roberts explain.

In order to promote the outcomes of Every Child Matters, early years practitioners must sometimes tackle sensitive issues. Practitioners need to look for solutions in areas of health, welfare and learning that will ensure that all children are included.

Inclusion has been defined as 'a process of identifying, understanding and breaking down barriers to participation and belonging', while best practice 'welcome(s) children from all backgrounds' (CACHE, 2005).

There may, however, be differences between practitioners' own ideas of best practice and the ideas of the families and communities that they serve. The Early Years Foundation Stage refers to the need for 'maintaining a respectful dialogue with parents whose views about behaviour or child rearing differ radically from your own' (Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2007).

In cases where practitioners and families are in disagreement, both parties may need to change their attitudes and their behaviour. Practitioners may need, in the interests of children's welfare, to work towards a compromise, finding a solution that is mutually acceptable to themselves and to the families.

Healthy lifestyles

In earlier articles in this series, case studies have shown how settings participating in the Healthy Children Are Better Learners project engaged parents in making healthy lifestyle choices. This had an impact on the children's capacity to make healthy choices of their own.

In Rainbow Playgroup at the start of the project, practitioners encouraged the children to taste unfamiliar fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods, leading by example and eating the foods with the children. The staff surprised themselves by finding that they enjoyed the different foods too!

Almost all the children in the setting were from a minority ethnic community with a home language other than English. The practitioners shared the same cultural background and home language as most of the children.

Practitioners became aware during the project that some of their own attitudes and choices about food were not consistent with messages on healthy lifestyles. They began to realise that their own diet was higher in fat and sugar than was desirable, and that this would also be the case for the majority of the children. They recognised the need to share their learning journey with the parents.

At certain times in the setting, there was already a focus on food. Families brought food into the setting for celebrations, such as birthdays or religious festivals. These foods mostly had a high fat and sugar content.

The practitioners began to consider a policy for food in the setting and they shared their thinking with the families. The practitioners were aware that some families might be resistant to compromise, or feel reluctant to change the way that things had always been done.

It was helpful that most of the families shared the same home language as the practitioners, as this enabled a dialogue to take place. If families had not been invited to reflect on or discuss the issue, they might have found it hard to support any change.

Together, practitioners and parents developed a new policy, agreeing that only fruit, salad and vegetables would be accepted as a celebration food. Practitioners' own change in behaviour gave the lead to families, who in turn changed their views and their behaviour. They understood that the new policy reinforced the learning their children had already done at the pre-school, when they had discussed diet, hygiene and exercise.

The practitioners were able to speak to most of the children in their home language as they participated in the activities and ate celebration foods. The parents of the few children whose home language was not shared by the practitioners were asked to supply words and phrases to support the health promotion activities.

As the practitioners at Rainbow Playgroup approached parents sensitively and demonstrated a willingness to change their own behaviour, they found that the families were responsive and therefore willing to engage in the process fully.

- Cath Alderson is early years advisory teacher for Harrow Early Years Childcare and Parenting Services in London. Gill Roberts is curriculum leader for Harrow Access and Inclusion Division, People First. Alison Tonkin is NVQ manager for early years care and education at Stanmore College.

REFERENCES

- Department for Education and Skills (2003) Every Child Matters

- CACHE CCLD NVQ3 Candidate handbook (2005)

- Department for Children, Schools and Families (2007) The Early Years Foundation Stage. http://www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/eyfs/site1/4.htm.

- Cummins, J (1984) Bilingualism and Special Education: Issues in Assessment and Pedagogy.

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