Food In the Classroom: Teachers Speak Out

The Manifesto! Click to enlarge it - copy and share it if you like.

Yesterday’s manifesto against food in the classroom, which I pounded out at my keyboard in a fit of complete frustration and anger, has clearly resonated with a lot of people.  With three exceptions (two of which I couldn’t print because they contained such foul language), comments posted here and on Twitter and Facebook have uniformly been in favor of getting food rewards and birthday treats out of our schools.

And many readers, like one named LA, wrote in to say, “Thank you for this. I thought I was one of the few parents who felt this way.”

Clearly not.

The other notable development is that I’m starting to hear from teachers.  Just as when I write about school food reform, I welcome comments and guest posts from school food service workers sharing their unique perspective, it’s been illuminating to hear from educators about this issue.  Here’s a sampling.

From Tina B:

I am a teacher, and while I admit I made the mistake of food rewards early in my career, I learned many years ago to stop the practice. I now have a treasure box filled with party favor trinkets items and a huge stash of stickers that I happily use instead. . . .

As for Halloween and Valentine parties, I allow sweets to be brought into the class. Candy treats are passed out at the end of the day (roughly the last 40 minutes or so) and I encourage the children to take most of their treats home. Because I teach in a poor district there usually isn’t that much to pass out anyway.

But the birthday celebrations are a completely different story!!!  . . . .

In recent years I have sent home letters to parents asking that birthdays be sweet free or to send in fruit or veggies, but since other teachers don’t have this class policy I really can’t enforce my requests. Parents of multi aged children (meaning kids in multiple grade levels and classrooms) can never remember which teacher has this policy, or just tune it out all together. Then there are the parents that have the attitude no one is going to tell me what to do when it comes to my kid. Parents will send in cupcakes for all, Capri Sun or the plastic bottles of colored who knows what, as well as bags of chips and bags of candy.

I have had parents go to the principal to complain about me because I absolutely refused a Costco sized sheet cake and two liters of Coke. The parent brought no plates or serving utensils for me, and I have learned from experience that to carve up a sheet cake into 28 peices and pour 28 cups of soda takes almost 45 minutes from start to finish and then the clean up process as well.

I physically cringe when I see all this junk arrive. First, the children see this bounty arrive and then proceed to ask about it all day long. “When are we going to eat cake?” becomes the mantra for the entire day. I’ll be in the middle of a math lessen and a child will raise their hand to ask “is it time for cake?”! Because I do not want to have 28 sugar crazed children in my room I save this stuff for literally the last 20 minutes of the day.

Another reason why I cringe when it arrives is because I myself have a sweet tooth and even when I stand there and tell myself that I will not eat that, I will not eat that, under no circumstances am i going to eat that…I almost always crack and eat the cake. :( I have learned for myself that the best way for me to eat healthy is the total removal of all temptation. Now I am a 40 year old woman and have a hard time refusing the cake, so really, what are the odds of a child saying no? We can teach our children to eat healthy so they have healthy bodies and minds, but cake is yummy, and temptation combined with seeing all the other kids eating will result in our kids cracking every time. . . .

From a reader who goes by “c:”

When teachers try to say no to parents with cupcakes, we get labeled as the mean teachers. It’s tough to stand up to parents on this issue and risk a grudge when we need those parents to work as partners with us to help their children succeed academically. Parents are often looking for something to dislike us for, and saying, “No, I won’t let you serve cupcakes to the class for your child’s birthday, ” is often very hard to say when you know you also need to say, “Mrs. Smith, I would like to have your child assessed for speech.” Just a different perspective to keep in mind.

c also added in another comment:

As a teacher who insists the food in my class is rarely present, healthy, and safe for everyone, I applaud this article. For every 1 parent who is sick of the unhealthy foods, there are 5 who complain when the teacher stops serving it. It’s amazing how many complaints I have fielded from parents who think it’s mean of me to have a party of fruits and veggies with no cookies, cupcakes, or other foods that will send my food allergic kids into anaphylaxis or diabetic kids into shock. Parents think kids NEED sugar to have a fun class party. I have had parents who, even after they have been told no, will still show up without permission with 30 cupcakes and plop them in my arms with a satisfied look on their face, thinking that now that the kids have seen them, I have to serve them. This debate has two sides to it – please remember that there are plenty of teachers who are really extremely tired of having 30 kids hopped up on sugar in their classrooms and parents demanding that it happen on a regular basis.

Parental push back, especially when it comes to birthday treats*, is a real issue.  Here in Texas, our legislature actually passed a “safe cupcake amendment” to protect parents’ rights to bring in sweets for their kids’ birthdays.  And I personally know one parent who was vilified at her children’s school when she dared question the birthday treat practice.  So my sympathy is with well-meaning teachers on the receiving end of some intense parental anger when they try to curb classroom sweets.  (By the way, for an interesting examination of why parents get so riled up over this issue, be sure to check out this post on Real Mom Nutrition (“For The Love of Cupcakes“) and the article she discusses there: “Food Nazis Invade First Grade.”)

But I want to end on a positive note.  Two days before I published my manifesto, a comment happened to come in on a much older Lunch Tray post (“Sarah Palin and Birthday Treats Redux“) about Sarah Palin’s 2010 publicity stunt of bringing sugar cookies to a Pennsylvania school to protest proposed “Nanny state” school nutrition guidelines.  That post turned into a distillation of my many arguments against in-class treats, and a reader named Annemarie, a teacher, had this to say:

Wow. so, I’m having a sort of mini food revolution myself, personally, and this blog comes at such a great time. I’m absolutely a foodie, and one of the hardest parts of trying to eat more healthily is fitting my foodie lifestyle into healthy eating. More importantly, I’m a mother now, to a beautiful almost-two year old, and eating right has suddenly become so much more important. People are encouraging my attempt at losing the ton of weight I want to lose, and it’s hard to explain to them that this isn’t about losing weight so much as its about changing my entire lifestyle when it comes to eating and feeding my family.

The reason I’m responding to this, though, is that i have a confession to make. I am a teacher of sixth graders, and I must say that in my seven years of teaching it never occurred to me to think past the reception of the treat. What I mean is I knew treats made my students happy. I bring treats in about five times a year, if that, although the clemtines I give them for PSSA testing some don’t consider a treat. We have a pizza party to celebrate reading Olympics, and every time we have a fundraising competition the winning team gets an ice cream party (that I have nothing to do with!). It never occurred to me the violation I was committing, and I truly mean that. My job is to educate, and yes, providing treats here and there is great. Bt reading these comments and this article has completely changed the way I’m viewing my treat-giving! It never occur to me that i Might have students who have parents desperately trying to save them by teaching them proper nutrition, and it never occurred to me that providing treats might interfere with that.

I’m a little confused by some comments – no one is entitled to cupcakes, and I think, honestly, the idea of getting creative with treats for the classroom and using non-food rewards is so important. I can’t wait to try and think of something clever for our next reward!

If that doesn’t make you feel hopeful . . . .


* A while back, I was stressing about celebrating my own child’s birthday in the classroom and TLT readers came up with many fantastic, food-free ideas:  “A Happy Ending to the Classroom Birthday Treat Dilemma.”

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  1. BRS says

    It’s always good to hear other perspectives. I would like to point out that kids “being hopped up on sugar” should be the least of anyone’s worry. What they are really “hopped up on” isn’t the sugar but the very toxic chemicals found in store bought baked goods and anything dyed with fake food coloring. These are TOXINS. If parents got educated, they would be horrified at the idea of their precious children ingesting this chemical concoction. Finally, getting food out of the classroom doesn’t have to be considered a simple “choice”; every time there is food in a classroom, children with food allergies are excluded and made to feel different. Plus, 25% of anaphylaxsis occur for the first time among kids who didn’t know they had a food allergy. Food in the classrooms is downright dangerous in this day of increased food allergies. If a parent wants her child to celebrate her birthday with toxin junk food, let her do it at home, at a private party.

    • c says

      Rest assured the sugar is really the least of my worries. Aside from being a teacher who strives to only provide healthy foods in the classroom and eat only healthy foods in front of my students, I am also the mother of a beautiful nine-year-old girl who is anaphylactic to milk, peanuts, tree nuts, and sunflower seeds/oil. My classroom is not only healthy-foods-only, it is nut free.


      • BRS says

        Thanks for letting me know, c! I was really speaking of the misconception about the impact of sugar on kids’ behavior, in general, among parents. My kids are dairy-free due to allergies (not life-threatening, thank goodness) and I go ahead and write notes that they are allergic to synthetic food dye as well. We practice the same kinds of avoidance for dye that nut-free and dairy-free families, etc., do. I just wish it were taken more seriously. If more people understood the impact of these toxins, my children would be less excluded. Kudos to you for being a teacher who models healthy habits to your students. We need more of you!

  2. says

    I do get frustrated by the ‘kids need this candy, it’s their right as part of childhood’ attitude. My oldest son cannot have food dyes. He has a neurobiological illness that is exacerbated by them. How many times have people (his grandparents!) said “Oh, a few M&Ms won’t hurt”. Well, guess what, they do. Also frustrating are teachers who KNOW about this (it’s in his IEP, though he’s mainstreamed) and still don’t pay attention or worse, plan in-class activities that cannot be avoided without him sitting outside of the classroom (a project involving making “Christmas” trees out of colored icing, sugar cones, and various candies comes to mind.)

    I’ve tried everything I can think of, even sending in a container of “safe” treats for my son for the teacher to keep on hand, in case someone shows up with birthday cupcakes or something unplanned so he won’t be left out. Do any teachers have any tips or recommendations of how parents can work with teachers to get the junk out of the class?

    • c says

      Is the principal aware of the struggle? From personal experience with my daughter (and a teacher who thought she had to teach math with food), bringing in the nurse and principal was helpful. It wasn’t a magic bullet, but we were able to set a few ground rules.

  3. says

    My new personal motto in this situation is “be the change.” I volunteered to host both of my kids’ class Easter parties, and I served healthy but fun foods – bunny shaped PB&J on whole wheat bread, carrots with homemade ranch, Annie’s chocolate/vanilla bunny grahams, and butterfly snack bags with grapes and Annie’s cheddar bunnies. The kids LOVED it, and I only heard one kid ask “where’s the cupcakes?” :) I’m hoping to lead by example. Here’s a pic –

      • says

        No issues with allergies in either kid’s class, so we were good to go. I made sure to double check. :) We live in a rural area, and the school has no allergy policy yet.

  4. says

    It is nice to hear that so many teachers are trying to work to help with this issue. I understand that being a teacher is a tough job, you have to appease everyone. but for those teachers that feel they want to limit the sugary treats, I want ot pass on a way to do it without having a backlash. A team of third grade teachers in an elementary school in my area (in Pennsylvania) decided to take the plunge. At the beginning of the year they sent out a letter to all parents stating their new policy. The letter basically said that they feel it is important that each child is recognized for their birthday and they want to ensure thatEVERY child will be able to participate in the celebration. Due to the increased amount of food allergies, we are requesting that no food be brought in for birthday celebrations, but instead other things like pencils or a book for the class to share (there was a list of about 10 ideas). They went on to say that if it is necessary to bring in a treat, then please send in all ingredient information the day before and it cannot contain (listed all of the allergans). The same type of note went home for hoiday parties….it said that treats like fruit and other allergan safe foods would be provided by the teachers, there is no need to send in anything. They did say for Valentines Day….please do not send in any candy, just cards. This has worked amazingly well! Only a few cases where parents brought in food for the birthday parties, but did bring in the ingredient information as requested…the other kids had great ideas…one child brought in decorative marbles and gave each child one….another brought in fun small superballs, others brought in things for the class to share and the kids LOVED IT!!!!

    This is a great way to soften the way of eliminating the sugary treats which make it difficult, as these teachers have said, for them to do their jobs effectively….it is hard to deal with kids in general for extended periods of time, but if they are preocuupied with a sugary treat that is coming, or have eaten it and now wired up…it makes the teachers job much more difficult…..hope this helps any of you looking to make this change…..

  5. Casey says

    I’m grateful for teachers like these and understand the difficult position they face. This is why parents need to take this manifesto to the administrators, school council, school board, PTA, etc. and be vocal advocates for strong wellness policies that address these issues. We are the ones in the best position to back up wonderful teachers like this who are trying to make a difference!

  6. says

    Thank you for this! It’s true–it’s the parents who are responsible for so much of the candy and treats at school. And like you and others have said, it is the parents who will fight to the death to be able to give their kids sugar-laden sweets all the time. I always argue that they are free to give their kids sugar at home so why do they have to insist on it at school? I am met with blank stares or hostility. I’m known as the crazy anti-treats lady. My daughter is now 12. During the majority of her elementary school days the birthday treat of choice was Krispy Kreme donuts. Kids would come to school with huge boxes of donuts and each kid would be given a donut. If there are extras, they would be given more than one. I was always astounded that this was considered OK by everyone (including the teachers).

    One thing that surprises me, and continues to surprise me, is the fact that our daughter gets most of her junk food at school. That’s kind of mind-blowing.

    • says

      When I used to teach Sunday school, we had an issue with sweets being brought in. Our solution to this: if sweets were brought in, they were given to the children – 5 MINUTES BEFORE THE PARENTS CAME TO PICK THEM UP. Needless to say, the pastor didn’t always find this amusing, especially when he had several dozen little ones bouncing off the walls during service.


  7. says

    I am childless, but it is shocking to me since I just do NOT remember this much candy or cake in school. I recall candy at Halloween and Valentine’s and that was it. No parties in school, no food treats, etc.

    What a change, thanks for the insights yesterday and sharing the feedback today.

    • Jinni says

      I don’t recall it either – and have commented to that effect before.

      I’ve gone to public, private, Catholic, and Waldorf schools across 12 years – in three states – and remember only two pizza parties in 3d grade. One because a TV star (friend of the teacher) came to class, and one because we’d finally memorized the times tables. That’s it. There were NO rewards of any kind, no candy, no food, nothing. We had to raise our hand to use the water fountain outside the classroom.

      I have no idea where these customs started, although my theory is that it’s a Western thing – Texas, California, and in between. (I now live in Los Angeles, and hear about this all the time from friends with older children).

      I’ve just started researching schools for my young son and this is the SECOND question I ask. So far, no food has been the policy, and it’s pedagogical, and strictly enforced, I’m told.

  8. Tina B says


    Unless the entire district (like my son’s) has adopted a strict no food policy, you really can’t. The food policy for my son’s district is in the student code of conduct, the parent handbook, and on all the fliers that come home in September. It is posted on the front door of the school that the whole building is peanut sensitive, meaning certain classrooms are labeled peanut free, and the lunch room has one tables set up for the kids who do bring a PB&J to school to go sit at and eat.

    For birthdays you are allowed to send in stickers, cute pencils, etc, and when they have a party of some kind the kids are allowed to bring in toys from home.

    The only exception to the policy is Halloween day and Valentine’s Day. Those are the only two days a year outside treats are welcome.

  9. Nancy says

    The 2004 reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act required every school receiving federal funds for food service programs to adopt a wellness policy by the beginning of the 2006-2007 school year. Each school’s wellness policy must include:

    – goals for nutrition, education, physical activity, and other school-based activities to promote student wellness;
    – nutrition guidelines for all foods available on each school campus during the school day;
    – a plan for measuring the implementation of the wellness policy; and
    plans to involve the parents, students, and other school faculty and the public in the development of the policy

    Parents concerned about food rewards in the classroom or out of control birthday parties should go directly to their district superintendent and ask to see a copy of the district’s wellness policy. If there isn’t one, the district is in violation of the law and they could lose their National School Lunch Program and breakfast program funding. If there is a wellness policy and the district isn’t enforcing it, the superintendent should know about that and parents can put pressure on the district to enforce the policy by forming a coalition, bringing the issue to the attention of the local media, etc. If there is a weak wellness policy, parents can pressure the district to create and enforce a stronger policy. Parents should be included on any district wellness committee.

    I know that many districts just blew off the wellness policy requirements but if parents are organized and make a big enough stink, things can change.

    • says

      Our district has a wellness policy (in fact, we’re revising it right now) but it is quite weak. Whatever the district puts in the wellness policy, they have to be able to enforce so there are lots of words like “encourage” and “should” rather than “require” and “must.” Enforcement is difficult and tough wellness policies create a backlash from parents who don’t think that it is a school’s place to teach wellness. It’s the squeaky wheel syndrome. You’re right — parents who value true wellness need to make a big stink to get things moving in the right direction.

  10. says

    I am fortunate enough to have a child that likes a healthy balance of food and treats. He loves to bring clementines (those little kid sized oranges) in to his 2nd grade classmates. And his classmates seem to love it too. It makes it so much easier for me to say “yes” to him sharing with his classmates and teachers. I do love to bake cupcakes, but I agree with the fact that we need to be mindful of other parents and their children. Not to mention, I don’t want to risk sending something that my son cannot share with all the students because of allergies and diet concerns such as gluten-free.

    • BRS says

      Sharing food is very dangerous for many children with food allergies, even if the food is considered healthy. For example, my dariy-allergic son goes to school with a child who cannot have ANY berries. I would ask that all teachers implement a “no sharing what’s in your lunch” policy. It could be a matter of life and death.

  11. Kirby says

    I agree that geting the teacher on board with the healthy snack idea is a hard one. Luckily, my daughter’s kindergarden teacher is all for healthy snacks. She even sent home a list of approved snack ideas, and will send home a reminder to keep it healthy about half way through the year. While she does allow sugary things like cupcakes for the childs birthday, that is the only exception. Also rewards in non-food form are great. My daughter is super excited to get a new pencil as a reward when she does great and earns enough stickers to pick out a prize from the treasure box.
    I also think it’s a great idea to ask each parent if their kid has any food allergies, and then pass down that info to the class parents as to which foods are no-no’s. I always ask before making a snack if there are any allergies I need to know about.
    I think it’s up to the parents to put the ideas out there that we want healthy snack for our kids. Talk to the teachers in your school system, even other parents. Get people involved in this. I even told my daughters teacher about the lunch tray. She loves it! We need to spread the word to keep our kids safe and healthy. It’s up to the parents and educators to see that kids learn healthy habits early on to ensure a healthy adulthood.

  12. GMC says

    While I agree with the kids eating a much healthier diet, birthdays are a celebration that society states sweets are to be served. There are many recipes that can be tweeked to a much more healthy and acceptable standard. For example, banana bread/muffins. I think birthdays should be celebrated with something sweet but not necessarily THAT sweet or full of dies. Now with that being said, the schools my kids attend do not allow home baked goods. They must all be store bought. The main reason is for the ingredient list for those with allergies. Also, there is not doubt, the cleanliness of the kitchen and food handling. So as a parent I’m caught between a rock and a hard place. I want my kid to be “popular” for a day for the celebration treat I bring in, BUT I also would love for it to be healthy. Unfortunately, the schools do not give me much of an option for this. Sigh…

    • says

      My question about the idea of sweets being served for birthdays is: Why in school? I totally agree with you that a birthday is a rite of passage that includes dessert, and even though I’m a healthy food blogger and my sons have special dietary needs, you’d better believe I go all out every year to bake them a decadent, sugary, fabulous cake that they and their friends will love.
      I just serve it at their party.
      See, if I celebrate their birthdays with a party that includes their closest friends outside of school, I have an opportunity to coordinate with other families who are coming, if necessary, and make sure that their food-allergic kids will be safe. The families have an opportunity to check in with me, when they RSVP, to ask what I’m serving. And when the parent shows up with their kids that day, I know they are giving me their permission to serve their kid that treat. They know what their kid is eating and they’re okay with it.
      When people insist on the rite of passage being enacted ALSO at school, it does two things that bother me: 1) it gives kids the impression that your birthday must include TWO desserts to be special (when a non-food celebration in school would be just fine); and 2) It takes the knowledge, permission, and full cooperation of the parents out of the mix.
      By all means, have sweets. But have them at the party.

  13. Claire says

    The teachers at our school were routinely giving out candy to kids as rewards/treats/whatever, there were class parties virtually every week, with an amazing variety or sugary/processed foods, and it all got too much for me. I e-mailed the principal, sat down with her and discussed my concerns and how I thought it could be addressed. She was very receptive and we introduced a policy of only one class party per month, with more fruit/veges as snacks, rather than just candy/cupcakes. Teachers were not allowed to drink soda in front of kids and candy was not allowed to be used as treats/rewards.

    There was a lot of complaining about removing all the parties, but mostly it was working. 18 months on and things are now slowly reverting back to the status quo. Candy is again being given out by some teachers – including the PE coaches!!!! And recently for my daughter’s birthday I had to take ‘snacks’ in for the entire grade, 80 kids!! I had a massive ethical dilemma – my daughter desperately wanted me to bring in cookies and be like all the other moms, but I couldn’t do it. (And I certainly couldn’t take in the blue ring pops that another parent did recently!) So I took in fruit (some small cookies, which I rationed) and the kids gobbled up the fruit – could have had twice as much. Why, however should a school put me in a position like that – that I have to go against my ethics, or risk disappointing my daughter.

    My question is not what food should we bring to to the parties, but why do we need the school party at all. My daughter had a weekend of celebrating her birthday at home, she was line leader for the day, wore free dress, had some other class privileges and the kids all sang happy birthday for her in the cafeteria – so why does she need the snacks/party? Totally unnecessary in my opinion, but I am very aware most people do not feel this way.

    • Angela says

      Agree. So much curriculum is compromised already because of increased mandates, testing, etc. I detest taking time from teaching to have yet another party. As a compromise, I think once a month to celebrate the birthdays that month is a much better approach. Would have to think teachers get tired of the constant disruption too. I’m sure I’ll really aggravate all the critics when I say this, but I have just as much a right to monitor what strangers are bringing into the school to feed my kids as they have to demand the right to pass it out. Imagine the chaos if parents like us demanded prior approval for every treat brought in by every other parent in the world who thinks it is their right to feed my child. It could go on and on. If I were an administrator, I would just get out of the party business and stick to academics. There are enough opportunities to celebrate in school already.

      • 3rd Grade Teacher says

        As a 3rd grade teacher and a parent, I couldn’t agree with you more, Angela. In the fall, I will go against the grain and allow only non-food birthday celebrations. I have seen enough cupcakes and doughnuts passed out during the school day. The students will be better off because we can focus more on celebrating them on their special day and remove the focus on the cupcakes. I’ve allowed the birthday student to sit at my teacher desk for the day and operate the classroom’s interactive whiteboard. They love this much more than eating another cupcake. We also write compliments to the birthday student in a student made birthday card. I would estimate from past experiences that I’ve sacrificed about 15 hours of teaching time per year supervising the sharing of birthday treats in my classroom. I’m done with that. My job is to provide learning experiences, to model good decision making and to foster positive self-esteem in my students. Encouraging the expectation that parents should spend their limited time and resources to buy birthday treats for students is senseless. One more point: Let’s give kids some credit. They are more adaptable than many people realize. They can handle change and can accept sacrifice, especially when the circumstances are clearly explained to them. I’m willing to accept complaints from a few people if they come my way, because I’m putting the students’ well-being ahead of a senseless ritual.

  14. Danni says

    Today from this blog I learned “no one is entitled to cupcakes”. Thank you so, so much for bringing me up to speed on your twisted opinion. Entitlement is such a serious social problem right now, it is wonderful to be informed of rare exceptions to the rule! Speaking of entitlement, I also know in America everyone is entitled to their own opinion, no matter how stupid, devious or deranged. I’m not sure you are necessarily entitled to have all of us agree with your opinions, though. That could be another rare exception to the rule of entitlement, no?

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Your disagreement is duly noted, Danni. But if you can’t maintain a civil tone, no future comment of yours will be published here, per my comments policy And your other comments today were rejected for violating that policy.

  15. Jinni says

    Where I live in LAUSD land, there’s no recess and hardly any gym (different teachers can take them outside for breaks if they so choose). If there’s REALLY no time for instruction, how is there time for all these parties. Classes in our district have recently been increase six kids at a time for the last few years. With that many birthdays, how is there time for all of this? I can’t figure it out.

    • c says


      That’s exactly what I tell my parents when I tell them I don’t do birthday parties. Lots of parents think if they make me have a party during class, they don’t have to have one that weekend. I’ve even had parents bring relatives, balloons, sheet cake and candles without asking first.

      • lacey says

        Wow thats insane. My daughter is in kindergarten and we are NOT allowed to go her her classroom. Some parents are allowed. But most arent. Every single parent has to go to the office and then ask the secretary or vice principle. I jad something i needed to bring to the teacher and wasnt allowed. So i had to text my childs teacher to make sure she got it. She had to go get it herself after i texted her. Which aggravated me but at same time it helps the teachers from having those parents like that show up and with family without permission. Thats insane

  16. says

    Here’s yet another perspective….I am a special education teacher working in a self-contained classroom. Many of my students have behavioral issues and many of my students are not reinforced by anything except food. I am not making excuses; children with autism and other developmental disabilities often have very limited diets and can also be very difficult to reinforce. Students with developmental disabilities are often unable to wait to earn a reward, so if I tried to reinforce them with toys I would go completely broke. So, against my grain (I write a blog that features local and organic foods!) I use candy, cereals, and crackers as reinforcers. Overall, the students probably get fewer than 15 or 20 individual pieces of whatever in a day and I have tried to move from sweets to crackers and cereals and intersperse other tangibles (blowing bubbles, etc.) between the food rewards. The goal is to move completely from food rewards to other tangibles and eventually a more intrinsic reward system…but when you are dealing with students with behavioral issues that prevent them from interacting with their peers, you have to use what works. Of course, I would never give a child a food a parent did not want them to have…but a few years ago we attempted to institute a “healthy snack only” policy, asking for fruit, granola bars, whole wheat crackers, etc. Instead we got the usual barrage of Doritos, snack cakes, and cookies. Frustrating.

    • Casey says

      I think it’s reasonable to have a policy that makes an exception to using food as a reward for children with an IEP. The problem is when it’s the default option for children who do not need it. Glad to hear you’re trying to move away from the food rewards since there is a high incidence of obesity among children with special needs.

    • BRS says

      If kids are being given candy containing fake dyes, HFCS, BHT or TBHQ, their autism, sensory and other learning problems are only being made worse. Every time candy is served at school, my sensory and dairy- and dye- allergic son feels excluded and different — and wonders why the other kids have parents who don’t understand what healthy food is. If a teacher must use food as a “reward” I hope she always has parental consent (sodas are being handed out at my son’s school to kids as young as 3rd grade with parental knowledge or consent), I hope it is free of toxins proven to cause ADD, ADHD, bipolar disorder and other learning issues!

  17. says

    what ignorant foodie ideas are you speaking of…..there is medical evidence to support that excess sugar is not good for anyone and especially kids…that diabetes II that used to be an adult only disease is now a disease that is found in kids…..I do not consider myself a foodie because I believe it is every parents choice to make the decision that they are comfortable with for their families….although you may be comfortable with sugary treats all day in school, many are not and I do not think it is the right of the school to decide for a parent who does not want their kids to have all of the sugar in school, to serve it. Bottom line what goes on in school should be curriculum…the food part should be left up to the child’s parent, not the schools, teachers or other parents….that is not right.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Heartsmart and others. Sorry, somehow the nasty rant against teachers from “Angel” slipped by me. It violates my comments policy and has been removed.

  18. says

    My older daughter is a 1st grader and my younger in pre-k, so I’ve only had a little experience with this.

    Last year we were told we could bring treats as long as they were prepackaged (so no homemade goodies.) As a baker and a mom concerned with nutrition, I was upset by this but we went with it (and got the yucky cupcakes.) This year, they changed the rules for the elementary school and made them so complicated the teacher said “just bring pencils, etc” which I did. It seemed to work much better.

    I know she still gets some treats at school but it usually lands on holidays. Fortunately, my daughter does know what is healthy and quickly informs me when she has a treat.

    My daughter in pre-k isn’t allowed to bring in any food (or other treats, including pencils etc) for her classmates. A few parents went around this rule either by handing it out after class or inviting all of the kids to the birthday party on Saturday. She doesn’t get sweet treats at school either, but due to some regulation with the pre-k program (it’s a state funded program, connected to Head Start) lunch is fed to her there and I am not allowed to pack her one. Having volunteered in her class, I know they make sure to include a lot of fruits and vegetables, but there is still a lot of typical school food there too (how many times a week does a preschooler need pizza anyway???)

    Next year she’s in elementary and I will be packing her lunch. Thank goodness!

  19. says

    As the mother of a daughter with a life-threatening peanut allergy, the concept of “celebrations” that leave out several members of the community that is celebrating drives me crazy. I’ve argued for years that leaving some of the kids out of the celebrations by serving food they can’t eat gives them the message that they aren’t valued members of the community. It doesn’t matter if they have a treat brought from home, the message is still the same. It makes me so sad that people do not understand this.

    Also, I have also asked, over the years, why parents insist on bringing in birthday treats when they are going to have one or more parties for their kids’ birthdays outside of schol. I read the article about the people who felt like a “good” mom when they brought in treats for their kids. I guess I understand it a bit more now. But, I wonder how we can get through to people like this? Is there hope? My daughter is in 6th grade and I will admit, I’m exhausted by this situation in the schools. It has been a non-stop fight.

  20. LC says

    Thank you Thank you Thank you!!! I only wish that all of my kids could have you for a teacher!!! I eat healthy and I feed my children healthy foods. School has always been a huge frustration for me because of all the “treats”. I believe all schools should have food policies in place. We have so many reasons to make these policies the normal in all schools starting with the right to raise our children eating healthy foods, Childhood Obesity, Diabetes, ADHD, and Life Threatening Food Allergies. Again, thank you!! I have printed off your food in the classroom manifesto and can’t wait to share it with my kids principal.

  21. Richard Miller says

    As a pipefitter I worked in the food industry for many years. I was always amazed at how the scientist could take nasty chemicals and process it along with other strange products and turn it into “food”.
    In the late sixties early seventies we ate at a fast food joint once a month. In the eighties and nineties I took my family out to a fast food restaurant twice a week. My kids, take their children to a fast food restaurants five or six times a week.

  22. c says

    I had another parent show up today with 30 cupcakes, against the school no-birthday-treats policy and without asking or planning with me first… le sigh.

  23. j says

    I am a special education teacher in a middle school self contained class. Removing all edibles from the classroom would leave us with nothing meaningful to reinforce behavior. That being said, I make sure edibles are used sparingly and there are lots of options. I don’t use anything very sugary unless I have to. Students can receive 5 gold fish crackers or skittles in a session: 45min. If they want something less healthy, cheetos are a favorite, they earn 3 at a time. Students are also encouraged to choose other options some times such as computer. We also go to the store and cook once a week for life skills lessons. Feeding an entire cake and soda to a class is overboard for any students. Edibles are the first and most efficient reinforcer for many students with severe disabilities, but even then we push for healthy: apple’s, milk, etc…

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      J: Thank you for sharing your unique perspective here, as a special ed teacher. I defer to your expertise in this area, but is there any concern that the constant use of food rewards throughout the day has any unintended negative consequences, like overriding a child’s innate appetite cues, or creating an unhealthy relationship with food outside the classroom setting, etc? (I ask that with genuine curiosity, not as a criticism, btw, in case that doesn’t come through here.)

  24. cindy says

    Hi, as a mom, grandmom and teacher, I have experience, wisdom, education and great love for all children. With some schools adopting a “no candy” policy for all celebrations, let me just say this: denying ANYTHING fun will come back to haunt you. Teaching about nutrition, exercise and mental health, along with SHOWING how to make good choices will do more than any policy that FORBIDS it. Sharing delicious and nutritious fruits or veggies is perfect, HOWEVER, reading little messages written on candy hearts at Valentine’s day does wonders for beginning and struggling readers! Those little hearts are terrific for graphing colors and numbers also! I am NOT saying to eat candy all day, every day, but when it is offered once in a while, it seems like a fun, happy way to celebrate in a VERY food oriented culture. Now, to rip candy off valentines sent to school by parent or forbid a child to distribute a card with a lollipop, can be much more damaging to the child’s mind and ego, than just sending it home to let their parents decide. I understand about food allergies….so, just don’t let them eat it at school, send it home on the 2 or 3 holidays that make it so much fun to be a kid. ‘Nuff said!

  25. Amber says

    Ok, A+ for not wanting sweets in the classroom. My girls got cavities for the first time in their lives last year. Our 6 year old, TWELVE. In less than one school year. First time we opted into school lunches. Guess what our 6 year old was ordering with every lunch? Chocolate milk. They still won’t take it out, and won’t for a long time (if ever) as per my conversation with the Superintendent of Food and Nutrition for our local school. Second, teachers were giving both our kids candy, sweet treats, etc. as rewards or as methods of doing work (jelly beans for counting – in 3rd grade!!). YET, at our school, no PARENTS are allowed to send or bring in anything sweet. Birthdays – bring a pencil for everyone. Reason – because they’re trying to focus on healthy, nutritious foods, reduce obesity, not have such a distracting hour-long-festivity every other week, AND, because these foods (sweets/birthday cake) are hazardous to kids with nut allergies. REALLY?? I don’t give my kids sweets on any regular basis, love the no sweets policy, but the teachers unanimously believe it doesn’t apply to them, while my kids are getting cavities, sucking down barrel juices they’ve never had before in their lives, and parents are stopped at the door by the secretary (happened to me last year) to undergo questioning of whether or not I was bringing in such banned treats. I asked her, “Are the teachers supposed to follow this rule, too?” and got no response. Even after discussing this with their teachers last year, they continued, after a time, to bring home treats nearly every day and some wrappers stating “made in a factory that processes nuts, peanuts…” What I’m looking for is a way to STOP the hypocrisy in our school. It’s ridiculous!


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