Teachers' union launches positive-body curriculum for Grades 1 through 8
Wed May 5, 2004
GREG BONNELL

TORONTO (CP) - A program aimed at helping kids develop a positive body image was launched Wednesday with the hope that school boards across the province and country will eventually make it part of their curriculum.

"Our members have told us their students are increasingly preoccupied with weight," said Ruth Behnke, vice-president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, which created the program.

"It's not focused on your diet, eating habits, or the body mass that you have," she said of Reflections of Me, a body-image curriculum developed for students in Grades 1 through 8.

"It's an appreciation and recognition of diversity and . . . being confident in your body image so that you can deflect some of that harassment and bullying that happens in the school yards."

The program targets three age groups. Grades 1 through 3 are taught to accept their diverse bodies. Learning to deflect harassment is the focus in Grades 3 through 6, while the kids in Grades 7 and 8 are taught to question why people compare themselves to the so-called ideal body type.

"Eventually, we believe this curriculum could be used in classrooms from coast to coast," said Behnke.

Jan Moxey, an executive assistant with the teachers' union, said the program is intended to help kids reach their potential.

"What happens when kids don't feel really good about themselves is they don't take risks," she said.

That often translates into missed opportunities for self-expression, including participation in sports and the arts, she said.

Reflections of Me grew out of a 2001 study conducted on behalf of the teachers' federation.

The study found that children as young as four are already thinking critically about their bodies. By eight, girls refuse to wear shorts because they think their legs are too fat. By 15, years of body-based ridicule can lead to extreme weight loss and binge eating.

Based on that information, the architects of the initiative looked at the current elementary school curriculum and found it lacking.

"Unquestionably, there is no curriculum," said Merryl Bear of the National Eating Disorder Information Centre. "It's important to actually give positive messages and skills for life at early ages."

Doing so ensures that when kids, and particularly girls, enter puberty they're armed with critical thinking skills to deflect body-based harassment, Bear said.

The curriculum package presented Wednesday includes a video for students and a brochure for parents, but before it's implemented the teachers' federation will have to convince its local chapters and school boards of the merits.

"We've had three locals that have indicated interested," said Behnke, who hopes to launch pilot programs in five school boards for the 2004-05 school year. "Depending on the relationship the local has with the district school board, there has been support and interest from the district school board as well."

Another boost to the project would be a nod of approval from the provincial government.

"I think that this certainly isn't something that (the Liberals) are going to turn away, or deny that is beneficial," said Behnke. "It is something that assists in developing the whole child, and I know that that's a focus of theirs in terms of developing that character education they're talking about."

Premier Dalton McGuinty promised recently that there will be additional funding for public education in the budget, scheduled to come down May 18, to put an end to what he considers the decline of public education in the province.

The body image curriculum would fit nicely into the government's education plans, said Behnke.

"It's all about respecting each other," she said. "And that's all part and parcel of a bigger picture in terms of character education."

Calls to the Ministry of Education weren't immediately returned Wednesday.