Study: First Graders Don't Like to Play With Fat Classmates

Study underscores the need to start talking to children about acceptance at an early age.

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The overweight and obese aren't just discriminated on by adults—a new study suggests that children as young as five years old hold prejudices against their overweight classmates, which can affect them years later.

In a survey of more than 1,100 first graders in rural Oklahoma, children said they most liked to play with classmates whose body mass indexes fell within the normal range—those whose height-and-weight combination fell below the 85th percentile. Those students' teachers also said they believed students discriminated against their overweight classmates.

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"The take away is that if we want to intervene and help [overweight] kids, we're going to have to start talking to our children at younger ages," says Amanda Harrist, author of the report. "When obese kids are being teased, they're going to withdraw more from healthy social activity."

She says teachers and parents must try to "improve the emotional climate" for overweight kids as early as kindergarten. Being teased in first grade can have significant impacts down the line, she says. Other studies have found that students who are teased receive worse grades than students who aren't. Harrist, a child development professor at Oklahoma State University, says that when students are teased at such a young age, they can become bullies a few years down the line.

"A significant number of overweight kids end up becoming bullies. They don't start out aggressive, but they become aggressive reactively," she says. "If you're not treated well, you get mad. Some kids withdraw, some act out and become aggressive."

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Harrist says she believes the results would likely be similar if she conducted the survey in an urban or suburban environment—at survey schools, more than 25 percent of first graders are overweight or obese. In suburban and urban schools, there are generally fewer overweight children, so they are more likely to be ostracized.

"I think it'd be worse in a situation with fewer overweight kids," she says. "I don't see a reason why it would be better."