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National survey aimed at improving children's health

A Queen's University-led national study of more than 20,000 school-aged children will compare the health behaviours of Canadian youth in relation to other countries as well as, for the first time, across provinces and territories.

The university's Social Program Evaluation Group (SPEG) has received $900,000 from the Public Health Agency of Canada to coordinate the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) survey this fall and winter. Health Canada is providing an additional $340,000 to expand the 2009/12 cycle of the survey by increasing the sample size and adding supplemental questions on drugs and alcohol use. It is anticipated that the larger sample will allow for provincial estimates in many provinces. 

“We’re excited because we will now have better statistical, Canadian-based evidence of the kinds of things schools and communities can do to improve young people's health behaviour,” says SPEG director John Freeman, an associate professor of Education at Queen's. “Our findings should inform policy more closely, since we'll be getting information that will allow us to track provinces individually.”

The HBSC survey is an international, self-reported questionnaire that students in Grades 6 to 10 complete in the classroom. It covers smoking, alcohol and drug use, physical activity/body image, eating patterns, emotional health and injuries in children aged 11 to 15. Coordinated since 1989 in Canada by SPEG, in partnership with the Public Health Agency of Canada, the study is supported by the World Health Organization and involves research teams from more than 40 countries in North America and Europe.

For the upcoming cycle, SPEG researchers are collaborating with Canada’s Joint Consortium on School Health, which includes representatives from provincial/territorial ministries of education and the federal/provincial/territorial ministries of health. “We want all our children to grow healthy, fulfill their potential as learners and make smart choices throughout their lives,” says Clair Avison, Executive Director of the JCSH. “HBSC is a valuable research tool that shares this understanding.”

A separate grant of $546,000 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research will allow Queen’s researchers William Pickett (Community Health and Epidemiology), Ian Janssen (Kinesiology and Health Studies) and their collaborative team to use the HBSC data to study the effects of physical or “built” environments on obesity and injury in school-aged children. “While there are other health surveys out there, none specifically targets the pre- and early adolescent years, when a lot of behaviours that are going to affect the lives of kids are formed,” notes Dr. Pickett.

The research team, along with colleagues from Psychology and Education, will also look at the impact of social factors (wealth, resources, behavioural norms and cohesion within schools); behavioural factors (diet, physical activities and risk-taking behaviours); and geographic factors (province and community size and climate) on young people's health.