Are K-12 school environments harming students with obesity? A qualitative study of classroom teachers

  • Erica L. KenneyEmail author
  • Morgan T. Redman
  • Shaniece Criss
  • Kendrin R. Sonneville
  • S. Bryn Austin
Original Article



Weight bias can negatively impact health, and schools may be risky environments for students with obesity. We aimed to explore teachers’ perceptions of the school experiences and academic challenges of students with obesity.


We conducted interviews with 22 teachers in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, and Midwest in July–August 2014. All interviews were transcribed verbatim, coded, and analyzed for important themes by two researchers using the immersion/crystallization approach.


Most teachers felt that students with obesity were more likely to have academic difficulties. Two main perceptions of the reasons for these difficulties emerged: (1) obesity led to lower self-esteem that caused students to participate less, and (2) poorer nutrition, increased screen time, and reduced physical activity were simultaneously causing obesity and poorer academic performance. A few teachers described colleagues who felt students with obesity were not as motivated to work hard in school as their peers. Many teachers described school health promotion efforts focused on weight reduction that could exacerbate weight stigma and risk of disordered eating.


Students with obesity, particularly girls, may be at risk for negative social and academic experiences in K-12 schools and may be perceived as struggling academically by their teachers.


Weight stigma Schools Teachers Qualitative research Academic achievement 



This study was funded by the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders, Ellen Feldberg Gordon Fund for Eating Disorders Research. S. Criss was also supported by predoctoral training Grants from NIH Award # 3R25CA057711, the Initiative to Maximize Student Diversity Award # GM055353-13; and Maternal and Child Health Bureau Award #T03MC07648.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in this study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Human subjects approval statement

This study was deemed exempt by the Institutional Review Board in the Office of Human Research Administration, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Erica L. Kenney
    • 1
    Email author
  • Morgan T. Redman
    • 1
  • Shaniece Criss
    • 1
  • Kendrin R. Sonneville
    • 2
  • S. Bryn Austin
    • 1
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Social and Behavioral SciencesHarvard T.H. Chan School of Public HealthBostonUSA
  2. 2.Departments of Nutritional SciencesUniversity of Michigan School of Public HealthAnn ArborUSA
  3. 3.Division of Adolescent and Young Adult MedicineBoston Children’s HospitalBostonUSA

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