THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN BREAKFAST AND SCHOOL PERFORMANCE
SUSAN E. BAGWELL
DEPARTMENT OF ARTS AND SCIENCE
LOYOLA UNIVERSITY NEW ORLEANS
Sponsored by MUKUL BHALLA(bhalla@loyno.edu)

ABSTRACT

The purpose of the present research was to determine whether a positive relationship exists between eating breakfast before school and school performance. Ninety-six psychology students from Loyola University New Orleans took part in the study. Participants were asked to complete a brief memory test where a list of eight words was recited to them in a certain sequence. After diverting their attention from the list by having them list as many of the 50 U.S. states that they could think of, they were then asked to write down as many of the words from the word list that they could recall. Participants were also asked to rate their school performance in areas such as attention span, concentration, and participation in classes before lunch. It was hypothesized that eating breakfast would have a positive influence on a students memory, as well as other aspects of school performance. Results from the study showed that breakfast does have a significant influence on memory, but it does not seem to influence other aspects of school performance as previously expected.

 


INTRODUCTION

School is a very important aspect of our lives. We place a great importance in our society on striving to give our children the best education possible. We know that without an education, a person will find it very hard to develop the skills needed to make it through everyday life. Going to school is not enough though. A student should be able to perform well in his or her classes in order to get the most out of his or her education and to become a high achiever. For years, people have been asking the question of what will make students perform better in school. Although many have come up with ways to promote greater student performance, not many realize the great importance of healthy lifestyle habits, in particular, eating breakfast.

Does eating breakfast contribute to greater school performance? For the purpose of this paper, the term breakfast was confined to eating breakfast before school. The term school performance was confined to alertness in class, attention span in class, mood in class, note taking in class, test-taking skills, concentration in class, participation in class, and the ability to recall information (memory). This topic has great importance because discovering another way to increase school performance will be to the benefit of society. Higher performers in school could lead to higher performance in our society and workforce in the future.

Quite a few studies have been done to determine whether or not a positive relationship exists between eating breakfast and student performance. One study (Kleinman, 1998), as cited on the web site New Harvard Research (1998), established a link between increased participation in the National School Breakfast Program and improved psychosocial behavior and academic performance in students. The study followed 133 elementary school students before and after the beginning of a universally free School Breakfast Program. After studying the children, it was found that the students who increased their school breakfast participation were significantly more attentive in class, earned higher grades in math, and had significantly fewer behavioral and emotional problems. It was also found that three schools who participated in the breakfast program displayed a significant decrease in overall tardiness, absences, and disciplinary incidents compared to three control schools in which school breakfast participation remained low. This is not the only study that found significant results from a school breakfast program. Two other studies were conducted that established a link between a school breakfast program and student performance.

The first study similar to the Kleinman study, conducted by Worobey and Worobey (1999), examined the effects a school breakfast program had on pre-schoolers. Breakfasts were prepared for the children by a hired Food Technician in accordance with the School Breakfast Program (SBP) Guidelines made up by the federal government. As a control group, some parents were asked to feed their children breakfast at home and record everything eaten in a breakfast log. All of the pre-school children were given a series of tests to measure their performance ability. One of the tests was a verbal memory test where each child was read a string of words of increasing length. The child was then asked to repeat the words in the proper sequence. Results from the study showed that children performed better in general when tested after the school breakfast than they did after the home breakfast. They concluded that serving pre-school children a meal in accordance with SBP Guidelines does result in a greater performance in various tasks than in children who were not served the school meal.

More research has been done in support of the School Breakfast Program. Like the previous research conducted by Kleinman and Worobey and Worobey, Crockett and Sims (1995) also conducted a study on the effects that a breakfast according to SBP Guidelines had on a students performance. With their two groups of fourth and eighth graders, they discovered that eating the meal according to SBP Guidelines positively influenced childrens nutritional status, health, growth, and learning ability. They had a higher intake of energy than those students who skipped breakfast completely, because those students that skipped did not appear to make up for the loss by increasing energy intake at other meals during the day. Although much research has been done on the relationship between school breakfast programs and school performance, this is not the basis for all past research. The next study attempted to discover what types of children are most affected in school performance by omitting breakfast.

This study, which was done on elementary-aged children (Simeon and Grantham-McGregor, 1989), looked at the effects of missing breakfast on a childs overall performance, mainly his or her cognitive functioning. The effects of omitting breakfast were looked at in children of differing nutritional status. The first group of children was the stunted group, who were defined as linear-growth-retarded (low height-for-age due to undernutrition) school children. The second group was the non-stunted control group (not growth-retarded), and the third group was the previously severely malnourished students (malnourished in early childhood). The children were given a series of tests to measure their performance. Three of the tests were subtests of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, and they consisted of an arithmetic test, a digit span test (memory recall test), and a coding test (substituting symbols for numbers as quickly as possible). These tests were chosen for the study because performance on these tests are affected by attention and distractibility, which are things likely to be susceptible to missing breakfast. Results from all of the tests showed that the control group was not adversely affected when they missed breakfast. The stunted and previously malnourished groups, however, were adversely affected in most of the tests when they missed breakfast. The study concluded that missing breakfast could possibly be a serious contributor to poor school performance and achievement in undernourished, elementary-aged school children.

Although most of the past research conducted on the relationship between breakfast and school performance has been conducted on preschool and elementary-aged children, there were two studies done on college students. The first college student study, conducted by Benton and Parker (1998), looked at the relationship between breakfast consumption, memory, and blood glucose. The study was done on 33 university students, and they were given a series of tests. One such test was a word list test similar to the one from the Worobey and Worobey study. Students were read three lists of 15 frequently used words. Then, to prevent rehearsing, the students were asked to write down as many of the fifty states that they could think of. Immediately after this, they were asked to write down as many of the words from the list that they could remember. After studying the participants, researchers concluded that breakfast consumption does influence tasks requiring certain aspects of a persons memory. One interesting thing they found was that in some of their memory tests, a decline in student performance with the non-breakfast eaters was reversed by the consumption of a glucose-supplemented drink. This was not the case, however, with all of the memory tests.

The second study on college students (Politt, 1995) also looked at the relationship between eating breakfast and performance in school. The students were placed into either the fasting group or the breakfast group. The students were then given tests in spatial memory and immediate recall. Politt, who reviewed the study, stated that those who ate breakfast displayed higher performance in both tests than those who were in the no-breakfast condition. He claimed that the most important conclusion to be drawn from the study is that the data seems to indicate that brain functioning is sensitive to short-term changes in the availability of nutrient supplies.

All of the previous studies looked at the relationship between eating breakfast and performance in school, but none of them stated exactly what kind of breakfast should be eaten in order to attain the most energy. A study done by Morse and Pollack (1988) compared various starch foods to see how much maltose (carbohydrates that are easily convertible in the small intestine to energy-yielding glucose) was produced by the action of chewing and breaking down food. It was found that foods such as Cheerios yielded a large amount of maltose, while foods such as white bread yielded very little maltose. This difference in maltose was related to the presence of preservatives and other such chemicals in some processed foods (such as white bread), which can have a inhibitory effect on chewing and breaking down food. According to the results of the study, eating breakfasts with less inhibitory preservatives or other chemicals, such as Cheerios, can produce a large amount of maltose when combined with thorough and relaxed chewing, resulting in increased energy availability for the students to function better in school.

All of these studies can relate to the present study in that each one highlights the relationship between eating breakfast and greater school performance. Although these studies have discovered some interesting relationships between the two variables, many of them fail to address the different aspects of school performance that were addressed in this study, such as alertness, mood, note taking, test taking skills, concentration, and participation in class. This study is important not only because it addressed different aspects of performance that other studies have not, but because it was done on college students. Although some information has been found on the effects of breakfast on college students, the majority of studies done on this topic have been done on pre-school and elementary school students. By doing this study on college students and answering some questions about different aspects of school performance, the study has helped to fill in the gaps in the previous literature by providing more information on the topic.

In this study, the two variables that were studied were eating breakfast and school performance. Breakfast included eating breakfast before school. School performance included alertness in class, attention span in class, mood in class, note taking in class, test taking skills in class, concentration in class, participation in class, and recall of information (memory). It is expected that the more a student eats breakfast before school, the greater the school performance that he or she will display. Because of this, it is predicted that there is a positive relationship between eating breakfast before school and school performance.

 

 


METHOD

PARTICIPANTS
The number of participants was 96. The participants included 11 male and 85 female freshman undergraduate students from Loyola University over the age of 18. Some of the students participated as part of a course credit in one of their psychology classes. The others participated as part of a class requirement. They were recruited by the experimenters. This sample was a convenience sample, because the participants who were recruited were easily available for the study.

 

MATERIALS
Participants in the study received a survey packet and a piece of scratch paper (for writing down the fifty states) upon arrival. A copy of the survey can be found in Appendix A. They were also handed two informed consent forms to read and sign before the study began. One of the forms was for the experimenters, and the other form was for each of the participants records. The experimenter held a list of words that would be used for the memory test. The words were read to the student as follows: fish, house, apple, light bulb, bird, leaf, dentist, and snow. A survey packet which participants were asked to fill out after the memory test consisted of two parts. The first part consisted of seven questions asking the participants questions pertaining to their performance in classes before lunch. They were asked questions such as, "Before lunch, how alert do you feel in your classes?" and, "How long is your attention span before lunch?" The participants were given either four or five choices for each question. For example, for the question on attention span, answer choices ranged from 100% of Class Time to Less than 25% of Class Time. The second part consisted of four questions asking students about their breakfast habits.

 

PROCEDURE
The design of the study was a correlational design. The first variable of the study was breakfast, and the term was confined to eating breakfast before school. Breakfast consisted of any type of food or beverage eaten or drunk by the students before going to their classes. The second variable of the study was school performance, and it was measured by alertness in class, attention span in class, mood in class, note taking in class, concentration in class, participation in class, test taking in class, and the ability to recall information in class (memory). Students were asked to rate how well they performed in classes before lunch by rating themselves in Part A of the survey packet. In Part B of the survey packet, students were asked questions pertaining to their breakfast habits. To help control for extraneous variables, all groups of participants were tested in a classroom setting, the procedures for the study were conducted in the same order and in the same way for all groups of participants, and all groups took the memory test at the same time.

Participants were tested in groups. Upon arriving at the testing location (classrooms at the campus of Loyola University), participants were seated and given two informed consent forms to read and sign before participating in the study. One copy was given back to the experimenters, and the other copy was kept for their own records. Once consent had been obtained, the participants were handed a survey package. They were not asked to put their names anywhere on the survey.

During the first five minutes, participants were asked to complete a brief memory test where a list of eight words was recited to them in a certain sequence. It was explained to them that they should pay attention to each word the experimenter would call out because they would have to write down the words they remembered shortly after the list was called out. The experimenter called out each word once, and each word followed within a second of the previous word. The words were recited as follows: fish, house, apple, light bulb, bird, leaf, dentist, snow. Immediately after the list of words was recited to them, they were asked to write down as many of the fifty U.S. states as they could remember in thirty seconds in order to divert their attention from the list of words they had just heard. After the thirty seconds ended, the participants were told to recall and write down as many words from the memory list that they could remember in the order that they were recited.

After giving participants a minute to write down their list of words, they were asked to fill out the short survey in the survey packet. It was explained to the participants that the survey would ask them questions about how they rate their performance in class, followed by questions pertaining to their lifestyle habits. Once the participants finished filling out the survey, they were debriefed, and any questions they had about the survey were answered. During the debriefing, they were told that this survey was looking at the relationship between eating breakfast and performance in school. They were also told that if they had any questions or problems with the survey they should feel free to call the phone number listed on their informed consent form. After the debriefing, participants were thanked for participating in the study and allowed to leave.

 

 


RESULTS

Results from the study showed that breakfast does show an impact on school performance, but not as much as previously expected. Refer to Table 1 for complete results of the study. The independent-groups t test showed there was a significant difference between participants who ate breakfast and those that did not eat breakfast on the memory test. Those that ate breakfast received a mean score of 4.4, while those that did not eat breakfast received a mean score of 3.4. Despite the significant difference between these groups, the effect size for the memory test was only a .13, which is not very high. For the other aspects of school performance, no significant difference was found between the two groups.

 


DISCUSSION

The hypothesis stated that there is a positive relationship between eating breakfast before school and school performance. While the results indicated that there is a positive relationship between eating breakfast and memory, it also showed that breakfast did not appear to influence other aspects of school performance, including alertness, participation, attention span, concentration, mood, note-taking, and test-taking.

This study showed similar results to the studies conducted by Benton and Parker (1998), Worobey and Worobey (1999), and Politt (1995). The study conducted by Benton and Parker tested college students on memory very similarly to this study. Results showed that breakfast consumption does influence tasks requiring certain aspects of a persons memory. In the study done by Worobey and Worobey, a memory test was also given to participants, and results showed that those who were served a school breakfast performed better on the tests than those who were not served the breakfast. The study reviewed by Politt indicated that students given tests in spatial memory and immediate recall displayed higher performance when they ate breakfast than when they did not eat breakfast.

This study differs from the study conducted by Kleinman (1998), who found that students who increased school breakfast participation were significantly more attentive in class, earned higher grades in math, and had significantly fewer behavioral and emotional problems than those who did not eat breakfast. The present study found no significant difference on aspects of school performance other than memory.

Although this study did provide a good sample size with a valid memory test that showed significant differences between groups, the study was not without shortcomings. One limitation was that the study was a convenience sample, which makes the results of the study less generalizable to the whole college student population. Replication of this study and the convergence of evidence would make the results more generalizable in the future. Another limitation was that the self-report measures for school performance were probably not very reliable. More reliable testing measures, such as ways to measure school performance through various tests instead of through self-report would probably make the study yield stronger results in the future.

The results of this study do have practical implications. Information that breakfast does have a positive effect on certain aspects of school performance might encourage more funding for school breakfast programs, which have already been shown to increase student performance. If children start out eating breakfast young from the SBP, this may promote healthy lifestyle habits in the future. The information from this study, as well as from other studies, may lead to less reliance on medications, such as anti-sleep medications, or even Ritalin, if students are able to concentrate better and stay alert in class just from eating breakfast. Knowledge on the positive effects of breakfast may cause people to eat it more frequently, resulting in better health and school performance as a whole.

This study is not without theoretical implications. The study adds to the vast body of knowledge in health and educational psychology. The more information we have and accumulate over time, the greater the understanding people will have as to just how much (and in what ways) breakfast can positively effect school performance, as well as other aspects of peoples lives.

For future research, more significant results may be found from focusing more on the memory aspect of school performance. More tests could be created to determine which type of memory is most affected by eating breakfast. Also, more reliable testing measures to test different aspects of school performance might find a significant relationship between breakfast and how a student performs in school. Another suggestion for future research would be to create an experimental design where participants could be controlled for whether they eat breakfast or not. All participants in the breakfast condition could be served the same breakfast prior to a memory test or any other form of test that measures school performance. Participants in the no breakfast condition could be told to fast so many hours before the test(s) would be administered. By serving all participants in the breakfast condition the same breakfast at the same time before the test(s) (and having all participants in the no breakfast condition fast so many hours prior to the test), this would ensure the controlling for certain extraneous variables not controlled for in a correlational design. Doing this would make the study yield more accurate (and possibly even more significant) results. This is an interesting topic that could have many more practical and theoretical implications once more research has been conducted to add to the body of knowledge on breakfast and school performance.

 


REFERENCES

Benton, D., & Parker, P.Y. (1998). Breakfast, blood glucose, and cognition. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 67, 772S-778S.

Crockett, S., & Sims, L. (1995). Environmental Influences on Childrens Eating. Journal of Nutrition Education, 27, 235-245.

Kleinman, R. (1998 March). New Harvard research shows school breakfast program may improve childrens behavior and performance. KidSource Online. Available: http://www.kidsource.com/kidsource/content4/breakfast.html

Morse, D.R., & Pollack, R.L. (1988). Nutrition, Stress, And Aging. New York: AMS Press, Inc.

Pollitt, E. (1995). Does breakfast make a difference in school? Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 95, 1134.

Simeon, D.T., & Grantham-McGregor, S. (1989). Effects of missing breakfast on the cognitive functions of school children of differing nutritional status. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 49, 646-653.

Worobey, J., & Worobey, H.S. (1999). The impact of a two-year school breakfast program for preschool-aged children on their nutrient intake and pre-academic performance. Child Study Journal, 29, 113.

 

 


APPENDIX A
                        Sample Survey
Directions:  Please list as many words that you can remember from the list in the space provided.  Try to list them in the order in which they were called out to you.

1.


2.


3.


4.


5.


6.


7.


8.

                           Survey

Part A:  On each of the following questions, please circle the choice that best defines you.

1.  Before lunch, how alert do you feel in your classes?
     
    Very Alert    Alert    Somewhat Alert    Not Alert
        1           2             3              4

2.  How often do you participate in your classes before lunch?
     
    Very Often    Often    Sometimes   Very Little     Never
        1           2          3            4            5
                                              
3.  How long is your attention span in class before lunch?

  100% Of     75% Of      50% Of      25% Of      Less Than 25%             
  Class Time  Class Time  Class Time  Class Time  Of Class Time
       1           2           3           4            5

4.  How hard do you find it to concentrate in class before lunch?

    Not Hard     Somewhat Hard      Hard       Very Hard   
       1              2               3            4

5.  In general, how would you describe your mood in classes before lunch?

   Highly      Somewhat    Neutral    Somewhat       Negative
   Positive    Positive               Negative   
      1            2          3           4              5

6.  How often do you take notes in your classes before lunch?
      
    Frequently   Somewhat Often   Sometimes   Seldom   Never
        1             2               3         4        5

7.  During tests, how much anxiety do you generally experience        in classes before lunch?

 No Anxiety  Little Anxiety  Some Anxiety  Anxiety  High Anxiety
     1            2               3          4           5




Part B:  Please present us with the following information about yourself.

1.  Do you eat breakfast?  (circle one)       Yes         No
                                                                              
                                               1           2     

2.  If you answered yes to question #1, how often do you eat breakfast?

    Every day      Often       Sometimes      Very Little           
       1             2             3               4
                 
3.  If you answered yes to question #1, when are you most likely to eat breakfast?

Before School  On Weekends   Before a Test  Any Other Time?_____


4.  For the following list, please put a check next to the item(s) that you tend to eat/drink for breakfast.  You may check as many that apply to you.  Also, please circle how often you tend to eat/drink the item(s) you check off.

Checklist           Very Often   Often   Sometimes   Very Little     

___ bacon              1           2         3            4

___ bagels             1           2         3            4

___ bagels with 
    any type spread    1           2         3            4

___ biscuits           1           2         3            4

___ biscuits with 
    butter             1           2         3            4

___ biscuits with
    jelly              1           2         3            4

___ cereal             1           2         3            4
     
___ eggs               1           2         3            4
     
___ fast food 
    breakfasts         1           2         3            4   
     
___ muffins            1           2         3            4

___ pancakes           1           2         3            4

___ pizza              1           2         3            4

___ pop-tarts          1           2         3            4  

___ sandwiches         1           2         3            4

___ sausage            1           2         3            4

___ toast              1           2         3            4

___ toast with butter  1           2         3            4

___ toast with jelly   1           2         3            4

___ waffles            1           2         3            4

___ yogurt             1           2         3            4

___ soda               1           2         3            4                   

___ coffee             1           2         3            4

___ milk               1           2         3            4

___ juice              1           2         3            4

___ other: ________    1           2         3            4

           ________    1           2         3            4


 


TABLE 1
Results from Memory Test and Self-Reports on School Performance
--------------
                            Breakfast  No Breakfast
School Performance Measure  M      SD    M     SD    t (94)  p

Memory test                4.4    1.2   3.4   1.4    3.7   <.001

Alertness                  2.4     .9   2.4    .6     .6    .6

Participation              2.8     .9   2.9   1.1    -.3    .7

Attention span             2.3     .9   2.4    .6    -.5    .6

Concentration              1.8     .7   1.8    .6    -.5    .6   

Mood                       2.6     .7   2.6    .8    -.1   1.0

Note-taking                1.4     .8   1.4    .7     .4    .7

Test-taking                2.8    1.1   2.6    .8    1.0    .3	

 

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Manuscript Submitted: 12/4/00 9:29:21 PM
Manuscript Last Edited: 12/5/00 8:50:28 PM

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