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Teaching the Whole Person – Breakfast, Religion, Trauma and All

Updated: Oct 30, 2019

Written by Marci McPhee for tutoring | made personal

I remember the first time I saw my elementary school teacher in a grocery store. I thought, “What? You mean she has a life? She buys groceries and cooks and stuff?” Somehow my elementary-school mind thought that she materialized in my classroom in the morning, then vaporized at the end of the school day, only to reappear the next day.

Similarly, students don’t show up to learn, evaporate, then reappear. The details of their lives impact their learning in visible and not-so-visible ways. Teachers and tutors often only see the output, not what's going on in the student’s life.


For example, the link between breakfast and learning has been well-documented. Dr. J. M. Murphy of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Child Psychiatry Service reports his research in the article “Breakfast and Learning: An Updated Review.” Dr. Murphy states, “Studies show that skipping breakfast is relatively common among children in the U.S. and other industrialized nations and is associated with quantifiable negative consequences for academic, cognitive, health, and mental health functioning. Universally free school breakfast programs increase the rate of overall-breakfast eating and are judged to improve learning by teachers and school principals.”

Free school breakfast and lunch programs used to be only for financially strapped families, but Dr. Murphy identified the trend in some school districts to offer free meals to all. This reduces stigma and administrative burden, with the added bonus of improving child nutrition and health outcomes for all children across the board.

And it’s not just breakfast. In today’s “dashboard dining” society, with frequent meals on the run in a busy family, children’s food intake can be haphazard at best throughout the day – and that’s even before you add the challenges of food insecurity for many families. Not to mention my pet peeve –breakfasts foods that I call dessert. (Donuts? Frosted toaster pastries? Yes, that’s called dessert. Muffins? Those are just cupcakes in search of frosting.)

When a student is underperforming or poorly behaved, could they just be hungry or undernourished?


The American school calendar tracks the Christian holidays, with breaks for Christmas and Good Friday, for example. But the marvelous religious diversity of the U.S. is increasing, with other religious holidays having deep meaning for many students. Those other holidays may or may not be reflected in the school calendar. Major Jewish holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover) and Muslim holidays (Ramadan, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr) all may fall in the school year. Baha’i, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and other faiths have their religious celebrations also.

“Successful school districts are those that have a good, strong religious excusal policy for everybody,” said Dr. Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute. “That means that students are allowed to have a reasonable number of religious holidays excused without penalty. They can keep their perfect attendance record, and teachers make an effort not to put things on those days, like crucial tests, so they’re not missing much and they can make up the work.” While many of these kinds of decisions are made at the school district level, teachers/tutors can simply be aware, make reasonable accommodations, and also advocate for the students at the policy level, either with the individual teacher, school, or district.

When Ramadan falls during the school year, Muslim students fasting from sunrise to sunset make an interesting case study for these issues that lie at the nexus of religion and educational policy and practices. For extremely helpful information and useful ideas on accommodations, see “The Educator’s Guide to Ramadan” When a student is underperforming or seems overwhelmed with overdue assignments, could they just need accommodations for religious holidays and customs that affect the rhythm/cadence of their academic life?


How well would a student perform after mom overdoses over the weekend or dad beats a sibling? The poet Frannie Lindsay could have been thinking about situations like these in a poem I have re-read often:

Ordinary Mind

I don’t know the word jocund

means glad, joyful, cheerful, or lively, and can’t

think up a sentence including it.

Mrs. Champ scolds me and makes me

stand by the cloakroom door to think

about why I never follow directions.

I am aboard the crashing plane

of my fourth-grade classroom, counting

my cardigan buttons and gripping a rag

of breath. Through all the windows

at once, the playground has tilted

cheerfully sideways.

from Lamb, by Frannie Lindsay, page 11 (Perugia Press, 2006)

It’s no secret that home challenges affect all social strata and ethnicities. Children may not have the developmental capacity to understand and cope with what’s happening in their world. Their parents may be attending to their own trauma and may not be able to provide the frequent long, warm hugs and listening ear that the child needs. In fact, the family culture may be such that there is no discussion at all, leaving the child to figure out coping mechanisms on their own as best they can.

When a student is underperforming or poorly behaved, could there be more to their life than meets the eye?

Suggestions for tutors/teachers

Listen. That’s it. Just listen. If you hear something of concern, you may feel impressed to gently ask the parent/guardian if there is anything you should know, while respecting family boundaries. Of course, in serious matters where abuse is suspected, you must report it to the authorities.

“Instead of saying, 'What's wrong with you?' we say, 'What happened to you?'" says Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, California’s first surgeon general. "When we are talking about addressing the root cause, science shows that safe, stable environments are healing for kids," said Burke Harris. Eating a healthy breakfast, respecting religious customs and addressing childhood trauma can all improve academic performance.

As you seek to support the child in their learning, a listening ear and a caring heart go a long way. Your support may make more difference in a child’s life than you will ever know.

Hannah Young, Marci McPhee, and Damiana Andonova Photo credit: David J. Weinstein

The author, Marci McPhee, is the former director of campus programs at the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis University, and an enthusiastic fan of the work of tutors Damiana, Hannah, and Cristal. Learn about McPhee’s writing at



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