School-Based Body Mass Index Screening and Parent Notification

A Statewide Natural Experiment

The state of California was an early adopter of body mass index (BMI) screening in schools, collecting data annually on 5th, 7th and 9th grade students. Notifying parents of BMI results remained optional, however. Mandated screening and optional notification created a natural experiment to examine the effect of parental notification on reducing student obesity.

From 2001 through 2008, investigators sought to determine if parental notification of BMI scores had any effect on a students’ BMI two years later. Data was collected on nearly 7 million students. The number of districts notifying parents of BMI screening results increased from 35 percent in 2001 to 52 percent in 2008.

The study found that notifying parents of their child’s weight status did not have any effect on pediatric obesity. Theoretically, parents given information about their child’s overweight or obese status could make lifestyle changes to reduce BMI, but in the real world that did not happen. Environmental changes such as healthier cafeteria and vending machine offerings, and increased physical activity would need to accompany notification in order to have an effect on BMI.

“Until a cost-effective method of BMI notification can be found, notification resources would be better invested in changing youths’ environment,” the authors conclude.

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