Want your children to do better in school?
Feed them breakfast before they go.
As elementary as that may sound, it is too often not the case, even in affluent suburban Connecticut. And Tolland is no exception, as Christine Grulke is well aware.
Grulke, a registered nurse and nursing coordinator for Tolland’s schools, knows exactly how many local youngsters have arrived to school hungry.
That’s partly because she’s been feeding them -- sometimes at her own expense.
According to Grulke’s records (and, boy, does she keep records), she handed out emergency breakfast snacks 298 times last year to Tolland eighth graders alone. District-wide in all grades, she said, she and her fellow school nurses dispensed 1,936 breakfast snacks to students who complained of headaches or stomach pains.
“It’s hard to learn when your brain is hungry,” she tells them.
In Tolland, the problem is not one of poverty, but of lifestyle, and seems to have its greatest incidence among middle- and high-school students. Children in the younger grades have a built-in morning snack time as part of the program.
At middle school, the problem is most pronounced among the eighth grade girls. Grulke knows this from data she has collected during her five years as the middle school’s nurse. Also, she noticed that an awful lot of the girls were passing out in gym.
So when kids show up to the nurse’s office complaining of a headache or stomach pain, she (and her colleague nurses) now routinely ask them whether they have eaten breakfast.
The answers are things like “I ran out of time,” or “I wasn’t hungry,” she says. “Some kids get up and just don’t want to eat.”
In only two cases in her tenure did the student report that there was nothing to eat at home.
The best and easiest treatment, of course, is to feed the hungry student, so, along with dispensing a little education about the importance of breakfast, that’s what Grulke and her fellow nurses do.
She keeps a supply of granola bars and cereal on a shelf by her desk, handing them out as the situation merits.
Not that the school system has a budget for such things.
For a long time Grulke and her colleagues simply paid for the food out of their own pockets, though more recently the PTO has started helping out, she says. One local parent has also been donating cases of cereal in serving-size boxes.
Grulke’s practice is to allow a student five visits to her office for a breakfast snack, then she calls the parents to discuss the problem.
“Oh my gosh!” they often say. Some are not home when their children leave for school. Other times, the students tell their parent they have eaten when they have not.
In either case, Grulke usually makes a point of asking the parent if he or she wouldn’t mind sending over a box of granola bars to help out in the future—and most of them do.
Grulke says she and her fellow nurses use the student’s office visit to teach and reinforce the message that good breakfast nutrition has a significant impact on a child’s school performance and overall health.
It is no secret among educators that students who eat breakfast before coming to school behave better, are more attentive, and perform better at reading and math.
That’s undoubtedly why the local PTO makes sure there are plenty of morning snacks available for students during the weeks when the Connecticut Mastery Test is administered.
Little wonder that Grulke and the school system’s food director are advocates of having a more formal program to make breakfast available to students.
This year, at least, a change in lunch plans has reduced the number of kids who have been experiencing hunger-related problems.
At Grulke’s suggestion, Principal Walter Willett revised the lunch schedule to allow for the eighth graders to eat first, at 11:30 a.m. It has already cut the number of hunger-related visits to the nurse by 13 percent.