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School-based screening for weight problems

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Schools have been measuring their students’ height and weight for decades, but now that information is often a starting point for conversations about childhood obesity.

Pennsylvania schools calculate Body Mass Index to estimate body fat and monitor the state’s child obesity problem. Some policy experts worry that BMI screening at school can stigmatize some kids or lead to unhealthy behavior.

Parents get a kid-specific report that tells them how their child measures up to others in the same age group. Children at the 85th percentile are overweight, those at the 95th percentile are obese.

Robert Karch is a policy expert with Nemours Health and Prevention Services. He says parents need guidance on what to do next.

Karch: I suggest that if weights and heights are taken in the school and BMI is calculated that there be instructions for the parent to pursue further information and evaluation by the child’s health care provider.

Karch is a pediatrician. In conversations with parents and patients, he finds out what kids eat for breakfast, whether they eat fast food and how often they have soda or sugary drinks, as well as how much time they spend in front of the TV.

He say those questions are a starting point for mapping out a plan to make lifestyle changes that can lower the risk for weight-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.

Pennsylvania schools require the BMI screening, Delaware schools don’t.

Beth Anne Bohn leads the Pennsylvania Division of School Health. She says schools work to ensure each child’s privacy.

Bohn: The nurse calculates the BMI and BMI-for age percentile and then puts that in a letter that is to be sent home to the parents. The screening procedure itself is no different than when the kids’ grandparents were in school.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that doctors begin measuring BMI when a child is 2.

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