Want kids to have self-control and make good decisions? Give them snacks and recess.

Your students are no different from most life forms — they need fresh air and food to thrive

Paying attention to physical conditions may be a great way to help kids be their best selves in school. Consider this: researchers have found that parole boards make different decisions before lunch as opposed to after lunch. In fact, one study found that the likelihood of parole being granted drops from about 65% for any given case to near zero right before a break, and then returns right back to 65% after a break.

Justice may be blind, but you better hope it isn’t hungry.

What’s true for judges is also true for all of us, school children included. It isn’t surprising that our physical surroundings and our immediate needs for physical comfort impact our ability to be at our best. When we are tired, hungry, scared, or insufficiently caffeinated (that last one can’t be just me, right?) we can get cranky, unfocused, easily distracted and impulsive. And that can lead to poor decision-making.

President Lyndon Johnson started his career as a school teacher. He knew hungry kids couldn’t learn to their best ability, which helped motivate him to create the school breakfast program. But kids aren’t just hungry in the morning. Letting kids eat when they are hungry may be a quick, inexpensive, and easy way to help kids develop and exercise self control and good judgment.

There’s pretty good evidence to back this up. Science suggests that low glucose levels are related to aggression and lack of self control (in one Halloween season appropriate study, spouses with lower glucose levels stuck more pins in voodoo dolls representing their spouses than those with higher levels of glucose!) In another study, college students performed better on a high self control task if they rinsed their mouth with sugar sweetened lemonade as opposed to artificially sweetened lemonade.

And food isn’t the only easily remediated environmental factor impacting kids ability to be their best selves. Other studies have shown that higher levels of exercise improves brain function, and spending time outdoors has important implications for vitality and well-being.

I work at Character Lab, where we are part of the new wave of enthusiasm and interest in building character skills and strengths in the classroom through the use of thoughtful curriculum, brief interventions that make use of brilliant psychological insights, and practices such as mindfulness and meditation. It’s a promising field that needs more development and is extremely exciting.

But maybe we are missing an opportunity to help us all be our best selves and strengthen character skills like gratitude, self control and zest without (or, better yet, in addition to) new teaching materials and brilliant interventions. We may be able to have an impact on helping kids enhance these skills with some basic adjustments to their environments.

How might we create environments where kids can be their best?

First, provide healthy snacks in the classroom.

I understand the need to keep schoolrooms neat and clean. It’s hard to learn when you’re hungry, but it’s presumably hard to learn with lots of unwanted visitors scurrying around for crumbs, as well. There are no silver bullets, but breadsticks, granola bars, apples, or some other inexpensive, relatively healthy, and easy to store snack in the back of the classroom for kids when they need them can help kids learn.

Second, give kids proper time to play, run around, and exert themselves. And don’t take recess away as a punishment.

Allowing kids access to fresh air and time to run around may well help kids focus in class and participate with more enthusiasm and zest. Punishing off-task or difficult behavior with lack of recess (which, in my son’s affluent public school setting, was the norm though last year) is going to make difficult problems worse. You likely feel better once you’ve been outdoors and gotten some fresh air and exercise. So do kids! Making some amount of recess sacrosanct, even for misbehaving kids, could be a no cost ways to help kids be their best selves.

As we continue to invest in ways to use new insights to help leverage and grow kids’ character strengths, let’s also pay close attention to old wisdom too and make sure all kids have full stomachs and fresh air. Let’s create the environments that encourage and leverage, rather than impede, kids’ strengths and skills.

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