Fault lines: Cracking the school-home divide in health education

Year: 2019

Author: Burrows, Lisette, Wright, Jan

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Considerable monetary and people resource is being devoted to programs that position children as key change agents for family nutrition practices yet little is known about how these initiatives work and/or for whom. What happens when health and physical activity messages delivered in schools reach family homes? Are children agents of change for family food practices? What happens to family relationships when school-based food directives contradict food values and practices embraced in family homes?

In this paper, we draw on data derived from two projects that sought to understand how messages about food in schools 'reach' into family homes. The first is an ARC funded Australian study that used photographic and digital images of family food rituals and routines, interviews with parents and children, and analyses of formal and informal curriculum documentation to explore how and if school-based health knowledge shapes family dynamics. The second is a New Zealand study that drew on similar strategies, albeit with a smaller cohort of families.

Across both studies, no predictable, nor linear mode of transmission of health messages between school and home was found. Rather knowledge received in school was made sense of (or not) in ways that fitted with existing parameters of family life. Different meanings for food, different emotions linked to food and different ways of eating featured in diverse family contexts. Many of these meanings were intrinsically linked to family traditions, pragmatic matters and a lived knowledge/understanding of the peculiarities of family members' taste and needs. Personal philosophies and knowledge gleaned from within and outside the family shaped what was eaten, where and by whom.

Where school-based food knowledge departed substantially from that celebrated in home environments, however, confusion, frustration and sometimes, anger, were reported by family members. These findings provoke us to think about the effects of what we do as health educators and to consider carefully what well-intentioned health initiatives yield in terms of affect for different families in different contexts. While children may be regarded as change agents for families, as mini carriers of healthful messages from school to home, and influencers of family health practices, the complexities of family life, confound the intention of some school-based health pedagogies to persuade to a particular point of view and to incite change.