Thursday, 12 September 2013

A lesson for school interventions from the Food Dudes

Last week I was at the BPS CogDev conference, and I was particularly impressed with an intervention aimed to increase children's fruit and vegetable intake.

What is Food Dudes?

Food Dudes is an evidence-based whole-school programme predominantly for Primary Schools in the UK. The programme involves introducing children to fruit and vegetables in the school environment, accompanied by four characters (the food dudes) in a television programme who eat fruit and veg. Children are given rewards for trying fruit and vegetables, and take prizes home. This intervention increases consumption of fruit and vegetables at school (particularly vegetables which are generally less liked by children), and also has the side effect of decreasing intake of unhealthy snacks.

A number of control studies have been run to test the effects of the programme compared to other attempts to increase fruit and veg intake. It was striking to see that educating children about fruit and veg, providing food for them to try, and providing rewards were not enough alone to affect eating habits. What really makes a difference is the TV show about the food dudes. Children seem to get very excited about the programme, and feel a connection with the characters. There is a very catchy theme tune which children sing along to and apparently continue singing at home. (I fully believe this - after watching the video I had the song in my head for days). The Food Dudes programme is being run out over an increasing number of schools, and continues to have positive results. A list of the peer-reviewed publications can be found on the website.

What lessons can we take from this successful intervention?

Without a doubt, the greatest strength is the programme's scientific evidence base. A number of initiatives aimed at creating healthier lifestyles do not come from a rigorous scientific background.

A whole-school approach means that all staff members are aware of the programme and work towards its goals.

The use of rewards alongside education gives the children something to work towards. Children get individual rewards, but also contribute to rewards for the whole class. This means that children encourage each other to follow the programme so that everyone can benefit.

Fruit and vegetables are made cool by the Food Dudes, who are role models for the children.

The programme involves parents, and children take things home, including fruit and vegetable charts to be used with parents.

Age range and type of school are taken into account when implementing the programme - it is tailored to the needs of the school.

The Food Dudes programme undergoes constant review and changes where necessary, based on the most recent research.

Resources are provided for the school to continue the programme into the future; this is not a one-off intervention programme.

The challenge

So now we need to apply these principles to other types of school interventions. My current research focuses on bullying in schools. For a bullying intervention then, we need to look at the scientific research to figure out what has worked in the past (this is the stage we are at now). A whole-school approach looks to be a good idea, to sensitise all members of the school community to the aims of the project. Rewards for good behaviour, both for individuals and groups, may encourage children to follow the rules and persuade others to act kindly. Perhaps a similar TV programme with characters children can relate to will make being kind cool. Involvement of parents may help principles to be followed and discussed at home. A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate; each school should be assessed for its own particular needs. Reviews should occur throughout implementation and changes should be made where necessary.

Arguably the biggest challenge of all is resource provision. Successful interventions involve huge investments of time, effort and money. Not all schools will be privileged enough to have these opportunities presented to them, and even if they do, at the end of the initial implementation, resources may disappear.

Luckily for the Food Dudes, it's positive effects are recognised and more money is being given to the programme. Other interventions need to work towards a similar goal of designing an effective programme based on science, running control studies, and proving the intervention's worth. For bullying interventions, a successful programme will hopefully attract the attention of those with the power to provide the resources.