Breakfast impacts student success, but not in the way you might think

UNSW Sydney

New research suggests a healthy breakfast is important for student motivation and achievement.

We often hear that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, especially as we grow up. It helps us develop, gives us the energy we need for the day ahead, and, as a new study shows, leads to better academic success in school – though not necessarily in the way you would expect.

Findings published recently in the Journal of School Psychology show that eating a healthy breakfast can lead to higher levels of motivation and achievement for students that day in school. Meanwhile, eating no breakfast at all can lower levels of motivation and achievement.

However, the study, which was funded by the Australian Research Council and The Future Project at The King’s School, also found that eating an unhealthy breakfast had a similar detrimental effect on motivation and achievement as eating no breakfast at all.

“Many students make less-than-ideal breakfast choices at the start of the school day or skip breakfast altogether,” says Scientia Professor Andrew Martin, lead author of the study and an educational psychologist from the School of Education at UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture. “Our findings highlight that eating a healthy breakfast each and every morning improves student motivation and academic achievement.”

The most important meal of the day

The research team studied 648 Australian high school students from five schools in New South Wales to investigate the role of breakfast consumption and quality on students’ self-reported science motivation and achievement in a science test. They surveyed the students on what they ate that morning and what they usually eat and created a score for their breakfast habits based on dietary guidelines from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). They then tested the students’ motivation in science classes, who then completed the science test based on the syllabus content.

“In the survey, we asked many questions about their background to help us control for various factors including socioeconomic status, gender, physical activity, previous achievement and conscientiousness to isolate the impact of breakfast on motivation and achievement,” Prof. Martin says. “We were also careful to time it right so we could better determine the process, with the breakfast in the morning preceding the levels of motivation and achievement we saw later that day.”

They found that students who ate a healthy breakfast the morning of the study were more motivated and achieved better test scores. Meanwhile, students who ate an unhealthy breakfast or no breakfast that morning measured lower for motivation and scored lower in their science test, regardless of whether they usually ate a healthy or unhealthy breakfast or previously performed well on science tests.

“As you might expect, eating a healthy breakfast every day is good for students’ motivation and achievement while skipping breakfast is not so good,” Prof. Martin says. “Somewhat unexpectedly, eating an unhealthy breakfast could be as disruptive to motivation and achievement as not eating breakfast at all.

“In fact, simply having breakfast isn’t enough to gain the full benefits of eating breakfast; quality is also important for optimal motivation.”

The research also found while breakfast predicted student motivation, it did not predict student achievement. Instead, motivation predicted achievement.

“A healthy breakfast has traditionally been associated with improved academic performance, but the motivational factors implicated in this process have not been well understood,” Prof. Martin says.

Breakfast as an educational intervention

The extent to which a regular healthy breakfast impacts student motivation and achievement has implications for educational policy and practice.

“Having a healthy breakfast is somewhat within a student’s immediate control and could potentially be addressed either at school or home through better health education and communication,” Prof. Martin says.

Schools and the school system can better support students by offering a healthy breakfast option at school, including information about healthy breakfast in the curriculum, and communicating with parents at home about healthy breakfast ideas and strategies.

“It is possible to incorporate a healthy breakfast or morning snack into the school day,” Prof. Martin says, “School-based breakfast programs are one avenue for this, or schools might consider providing students with a mid-morning snack, especially for students from disadvantaged or food-insecure homes.”

However, there may be other barriers that schools need to keep in mind. For example, some students may decline a free breakfast if it is stigmatised and seen as for “poor kids”, while others may have body image worries or cultural and dietary needs.

“If we can manage these considerations, starting each day with a healthy breakfast could be a relatively achievable change in a student’s life that has a notable positive impact on their educational outcomes,” Prof. Martin says.

/Public Release.