Shaping Behaviour and Attitude in Childhood Obesity

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Childhood obesity behaviour.jpg

Many of the life-long habits that jeopardize health are formed during childhood. Schools provide an excellent opportunity for preventing and treating obesity through changing these habits. Both physical activity and nutrition-focused interventions are already in place in many primary schools. In order to effectively implement these programmes it is important for teachers to understand what brings about the actual change in behaviour.

Designing interventions to produce or change certain behaviours; in this case health behaviours relating to childhood obesity; is best done with an understanding of behaviour change theories and an ability to apply them to practice.

Theories of Behaviour Change and Attitude [edit | edit source]

Negative attitudes of obesity reported among schoolteachers and children can promote size discrimination toward large children and body dissatisfaction in children who view their body size as unacceptable. Appropriate education on how to self-monitor daily activity levels can help to empower individuals to maintain healthy long-lasting life-style habits.

To alter an individual’s behaviour it is thought that you must first instill a positive attitude towards the behavior. Weight loss should be looked at from the inside-out, rather than the normal outside-in perspective, meaning, our attitudes and beliefs must be appropriate before methods to change behavior are implemented. Shifting a child’s attitude is the first step in varying a child’s negative behaviour and beliefs towards weight.  The following are key components that will influence personal attitudes: 

Cognitive [feelings]

involves the student knowing about the subject that teachers are trying to influence the attitudes on

Behavorial [thoughts/beliefs]

involves having the students engage in the behaviour that you want them to display

Affective [action]

involves the urge to want to perform the desired behavior.

It is vital to keep in mind that attitudes may not directly cause a behavior change but are necessary to address to help alter behavior.

Affirmations[edit | edit source]

One way to influence the attitudes of pre-adolescents is to try and increase their self-efficacy and to educate them on the effects of affirmations.  Affirmations are statements that declare that something is true. The theory of self-affirmation is a psychological theory with the premise that people are motivated to protect an image of its self-integrity, morality and adequacy. Self-affirmations are said to boost the self-concept and give you the confidence to achieve goals.  Self-affirmation has been shown to be effective in terms of promoting a greater acceptance and changes in attitudes, intentions and behaviour[1].

It is important to keep the following in mind when teaching and writing affirmations.
     1. Keep information consistent and congruent so individuals can form a single attitude
     2. Include messages that are high in affect and emotion (have a shock value)
     3. Use messages that connect negative attitudes to past negative behaviours

In understanding how attitudes can be altered with the use of affirmations this strategy can be utilized in daily and weekly activities.

The ‘Create Affirmations’ website has six easy steps to follow when writing self-affirmations:

  1. Use the present tense
  2. Use your voice, write them how you would speak them
  3. Keep affirmations short and precise
  4. Make them believable and realistic
  5. Be literal
  6. Use only positive statements. [2]

Ways to Implement Affirmations[edit | edit source]

Affirmations for Weight Loss:

  • I am the perfect weight for me
  • I choose to make positive healthy choices for myself
  • I will exercise regularly
  • I can make healthy choices
  • I will be active 3 days a week

Attention, Relevance, Confidence and Satisfaction (ARCS) Model of Motivational Design[edit | edit source]


Motivation consists of the amount of effort a person is willing to exert in pursuit of a goal; hence, motivation has magnitude and direction [3].

Motivational design is concerned with:

  • connecting instruction to the goals of learners
  • providing stimulation and appropriate levels of challenge
  • influencing how the learners will feel following successful goal accomplishment, or even following failure[4].
Ways to implement model:[edit | edit source]

The following table outlines the key components of the ARCS model and ways of implementing them[5].

Incongruity and conflict
use contradictions, play ‘devil’s advocate’ to challenge learner’s past experiences
use visual representation, anecdotes and biographies
change – tone of voice, movements, instructional format, media, layout and design of instructional material and interaction process
use puns, humorous analogies and anecdotes and jokes (with moderation)
use problem solving activities and constructive practices
use games, simulations, role-playing etc
• Tell learners how new learning will build on ones existing skills.
• Use analogies to relate current learning to prior experience.
• Relate to learner interests.
Present worth
explicitly state the current value of instruction (health benefit, energy levels, fun factor)
Future usefulness
relate instructions to future goals (SMART, develop with students)
Need matching
give students the opportunity to achieve, exercising responsibility, authority and influence
use enthusiasm, peer-modelling etc
student choice
Learning requirements
help students understand likelihood of success, advise students of requirements (goals and objectives)
sequence activities in increasing difficulty with continual but reasonable challenge
forecast outcomes based upon effort; set realistic goals
encourage students to internalize locus of control by attributing success to themselves
foster using confidence strategies
Natural consequences
allow students to use newly acquired skills in realistic, successful settings
Unexpected rewards
include student expectation of extrinsic reward (for boring tasks) or use a surprise reward
Positive outcomes
provide feedback – praise, personal attention, motivation – immediately
Avoidance of negative influences
don’t use threats, surveillance practices and total external evaluation. Do not patronise the leaner by over-rewarding easy tasks
repeat reinforcement at fluctuating, non-predictable intervals


Changing Behaviour[edit | edit source]

Presented below are popular health models used to describe how people acquire certain behaviours.  There is no 'correct' model, it is best to read through the models and think about which one best suits you and the situation you are trying to apply it to.

Social Cognitive Theory[edit | edit source]

The Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) explains how people acquire and maintain certain behaviours [6] and has been extensively used in the field of health behaviour with respect to health promotion, prevention and modification[7].

Human behaviour is explained in terms of a three-way, dynamic, reciprocal model in which personal factors, environmental influences and behaviour constantly interact (Figure 1).

Social Cognitive Theory - Triadic Reciprocal Model

                                                                             Figure 1: Triadic model from SCT.

An individual’s behaviour is uniquely determined by these interactions. Within this framework there are key constructs which determine behaviour patterns. The core determinants are described in the table [8], [7], [9].

Table 2: Core determinants of Health Behaviour


of health risks and benefits


to establish the pattern of behaviour



Acquisition of behaviour through observation and experience


individual’s ability to manage or control behaviour



The outcomes people expect their actions to bring about. The perceived importance of these expectations may also drive behaviour.

Goal Setting

establishing both individual and group SMART goals

Perceived Self-


An individual’s confidence in their own ability to perform behaviour.

Self-efficacy is an important determinant of behaviour and is incorporated into many models of behaviour change. Self-efficacy makes a difference to how people think, feel and act [6]; [10]. According to the SCT a personal sense of control makes behavioural change possible [11]. Bandura proposed that the actual performance of a particular behaviour is highly related to an individual’s perceived self-efficacy [12].

Low Self-Efficacy:[edit | edit source]

  • lower expectations of successfully performing behaviour
  • more effected by counterproductive situational temptations

High Self-Efficacy[edit | edit source]

  • Expects to succeed at performing behaviour
  • More likely to succeed at performing behaviour

Unlike other models of health behaviour the Social Cognitive Theory offers both predictors and principles on how to inform, facilitate, guide and motivate people to adapt habits that promote health and reduce those that impair it [10].

To Increase Levels of Self-Efficacy[edit | edit source]

  • It may be important to provide resources and support to raise individual confidence.
  • Behaviour change should possibly be approached as a series of small achievable steps [13].
  • Tasks should be moderately challenging so that students do well and make progress when providing reasonable effort.

Even a strong sense of self-efficacy may not lead to desired behaviour unless there is incentive [14].

  • To facilitate behaviour change it may be important to provide incentives and rewards for the behaviours.
  • Incentives may increase extrinsic motivation especially where intrinsic motivation is lacking.

Shaping the environment may encourage behaviour change.

  • Provide opportunities for behavioural change
  • Assist with changes
  • Offer social support
  • Recognize constraints that may deter behaviour change.

Goal Setting[edit | edit source]

  • Goals that students set or endorse themselves have a bigger impact on their behaviour than goals that are assigned.
  • Goals must be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely).

Theory of Planned Behaviour[edit | edit source]

The Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) is an extension of the theory of reasoned action (TRA). It states that the main determinant of behavior is the intention to act. The intention, in turn, is influenced by the attitude towards the behavior, the subjective norm, and the perceived behavioral control[15].  Figure 2 shows the influences on behaviour and their interactions according to the TPB.

Theory of Planned Behaviour

                                                                            Figure 2: Interactions within TPB [16]

Subjective norm refers to the individual’s perceptions of general social pressure to perform (or not to perform) the behaviour. If an individual perceives that significant others endorse (or disapprove of) the behaviour, they are more (or less) likely to intend to perform it. Attitude towards the behaviour reflects the individual’s global positive or negative evaluations of performing a particular behaviour.

In general, the more favourable the attitude towards the behaviour, the stronger should be the individual’s intention to perform it [17].

Perceived behavioral control is defined as an individual’s perceptions of their ability or feelings of self-efficacy to perform behavior. This relationship is typically dependent on the type of relationship and the nature of the situation.  Perceived behavioral control can also predict behaviour directly to the extent that the measure matches actual control.

Intention = most important variable in predicting behaviour change. Intentions are assumed to capture the motivational factors that influence a behaviour and to indicate how hard people are willing to try or how much effort they would exert to perform the behaviour[18].

  • Therefore it may be important to present information to help shape positive attitudes towards the behavior and stress subjective norms or opinions that support the behaviour.
  • For perceived behavioural control to influence behaviour change a person must perceive that they have the ability to perform the behaviour. Therefore, perceived control over opportunities, resources, and skills needed is an important part of the change process[19].

Transtheoretical (Stages of Change) Model[edit | edit source]

In the transtheoretical model, there are six stages that together form a progression for change:[20][21][22]

  1. Precontemplation: This stage is where the individual is not even considering attempting or thinking about a change in the next six months.
  2. Contemplation: The idea of change has been planted in their heads, but they aren’t ready to start right away. They plan to change within the next six months. They have identified the pro’s to change, but also are aware of the cons.
  3. Preparation: This stage consists of the individual forming a plan of action to change within the very near future. (within 1 month).
  4. Action: The stage where the individual begins to make their change
  5. Maintenance: the continuation of their plan, and trying to avoid relapse. The majority of individuals stay in this stage.
  6. Termination: the final stage, where individuals have 100 percent efficacy and will maintain their behavior. Seldom individuals reach this stage, because it is so difficult to maintain.[23]

These changes are described as "spiraling or cyclical", rather than a straight forward progression. This is due to the fact that individuals progress through the stages at different rates, and it is very common for individuals to move back and forth along the chain, before eventually reaching the desired goal of maintenance. [24]

TTM cycle.JPG

Moving forward through the stages is influenced by a set on independent variables known as "processes of change". These processes of change are a major contributing factor that allows us to understand how the shift in behaviour occurs. Numerous studies reveal that in order to have succesful behavioural change, these different processes should be used at particular stages of change[20]

Processes of Change: Experiential = Early Stage Transitions [21][edit | edit source]

Process of Change

1. Consciousness Raising

(Increasing awareness)

I remember some information that people gave me on how to not be obese

2. Dramatic Relief

(Emotional arousal)

I react emotionally to warnings about obesity and the dangers it can cause to my health

3. Environmental Reevaluation

(Social reappraisal)

I consider the view that obesity can be harmful to myself and others

4. Social Liberation

(Environmental Opportunities)

I see how society is changing in ways that make it easier to help with obesity

5. Self Reevaluation

(self reappraisal)

Seeing how obese I am makes me feel disappointed in myself.

Processes of Change: Behavioral = Later Stage Transitions [21][edit | edit source]

Process of Change

6. Stimulus Control


I remove things from my home and lifestyle that may contribute to my obesity

7. Helping relationship


I have someone who listens when I need to talk about my obesity habits

8. Counter Conditioning


I find that doing other things instead of eating and sitting around are good for my obesity

9. Reinforcement Management


I will give myself a reward when I lose some weight

10. Self Liberation


I make commitments not to be obese anymore.

It is very important to match behavior change interventions to people's stages. (e.g. If the student is in the precontemplation stage, it is important to provide to them the information about the pro's and con's about losing weight).  Without a planned intervention, people will remain stuck in the early stages due to lack of motivation to move through the stages

When children are in the precontemplation/contemplation stage, various factors should be identified to start the process of change:[23]

  • Learn the child’s current level
  • Identify cues to non-engagement in physical activity
  • Identify benefits of engaging in physical activity
  • Identify choice that can increase the child’s physical activity
  • Identify the child’s BMI
  • Identify the impact of obesity on the child’s social function

When children are in the action/completion stage, various activities have been known to work:[23]

  • Increase physical activity goals
  • Reduce barriers to physical activity
  • Recognize benefits of increased physical activity
  • Engage in less sedentary activities
  • Provide physical activities after school

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are both very important to the adoption and maintenance of physical activity. In order to move through the stages, an individual needs to increase their intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. As the stages progressed, the levels of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation should increase.[25]

  • In the pre-action stage, “tangible rewards” were more highly endorsed.
  • Extrinsic motivators, such as tangible results or receiving monetary compensation may be stronger as people consider and adopt an exercise.
  • Intrinsic motivators (effort competence and interest-enjoyment) was highest for participants in the maintenance stage. Showing that continued participation in regular activity relies on internal positive factors.

Cognitive approaches are most effective when individuals have not yet changed their behavior. These may include:[26]

  • Consciousness raising: increasing knowledge of obesity and the health effects of diet, physical activity, and environment
  • Social liberation: modifying diet, physical activity, and environmental factors, resulting in social benefits
  • Self evaluation: examining the effects of current diet, physical activity, and environmental factors on obesity and health
  • Environmental reevaluation: exploring the relationships between diet, physical activity, and environmental factors, and the physical, social, and emotional environments.

Behavioral strategies are more appropriate when individuals have initiated or are attempting to maintain new behaviors, these may include:[26]

  • Self liberation: telling oneself that it is possible to change diet, physical activity, and environmental factors
  • Counterconditioning: finding a substitute behavior for the usual diet, physical activity, and environmental factors
  • Stimulus control: removing items or stimuli that remind one of the usual diet, physical activity, and environmental factors

Bringing Theory into Practice[edit | edit source]

Following on from the information provided above a basic understanding of what shapes attitude and behaviour should have been developed.  This understanding should help to realise aspects that need to be taken into account when applying interventions to combat obesity.  Below are a few more suggestions as to how these theories can be brought implemented.

Questionnaire[edit | edit source]

A questionnaire can be developed using the Theory of Planned Behavior which focuses on health and physical activity (PA) behaviors.  The questionnaire should include assessment of:

  • Attitude
  • Subjective norm
  • Perceived behavioral control (PBC)
  • Intention to participate in regular PA [27].

Findings from such questionnaires will have implications for tailoring future interventions and physical activity for children. Previous studies suggest that to achieve greatest PA gains, interventions should implement strategies that reflect the findings on the importance of attitude and especially PBC, for obese students. They also suggest that PA interventions aimed at obese students should endeavor to provide information highlighting the benefits of participating in regular PA [28], for example, making PA enjoyable (see below).

Education[edit | edit source]

Children are very easily influenced, especially by the media.  Therefore discussions on the following topics may be beneficial: 

  • Specific programs
  • Articles in magazines/books
  • Pictures from books and magazines 
  • Individual/group feelings 
  • Pros and cons of these pictures/articles

Affirmations[edit | edit source]

Affirmations are more effective if a child writes their own positive self-statements.

  • Write affirmations and encourage them to be read out loud once a day.  Affirmations can change for each day of the week or every two weeks and repeated daily. 
  • Use of journals to write personal affirmations.
  • Children can write affirmations and decorate them to put up in their rooms and around the home.

Intrinsic Motivation[edit | edit source]

Children need to be intrinsically motivated to implement change.  It is therefore important to have them input ideas of how we can accept healthy attitudes and behaviours. If a child is intrinsically motivated they will be more likely to accept ideas and in turn more likely to alter attitudes and  behaviours. 

Useful links[edit | edit source]

Provided below are some useful links for those requiring more information on any of the content of this page:

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Sparks, P., Jessop, D.C., Chapman, J. and Holmes, K. 2010. Pro-environmental actions, climate change, and defensiveness: do self-affirmations make a difference to people's motives and beliefs about making a difference? British Journal of Social Psychology, 49 (3) 09, pp.553-568.
  2. Creative Affirmations. Writing affirmations. (accessed 23 October 2012).
  3. Visser, J. and Keller, J.M. 1990. The clinical use of motivational messeges: an inquiry into the validity of the ARCS model of motivational design. Instructional Science, 19(6)pp.467-500.
  4. Official site of John Keller’s ARCS Model. What is ARCS model? (accessed 12 Nov 2012).
  5. Learning Theories. ARCS Model of Motivational Design (Keller). (accessed 12 Nov 2012).
  6. 6.0 6.1 Bandura, A. 1977. Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioural change. Psychological Review, 84 pp. 191-215.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Redding, C.A., Rossi, J.S., Rossi, S.R., Velicer, W.F. and Prochaska, J.O. 2000. Health Behaviour Models. The International Electronic Journal of Health Education, 3 pp. 180-193.
  8. Bandura, A. 2004. Health Promotion by Cognitive Means. Health Education and Behaviour, 31 (2) pp. 143 – 164.
  9. Communication for Governance and Accountability Program. Theories of Behaviour Change. [online] Available from: [Accessed October 20 2012].
  10. 10.0 10.1 Bandura, A. 1997. Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York, Freeman. Worth Publishers, 1st edition.
  11. Connor, M. and Norman, P. 2005. Predicting Health Behaviour. 2nd ed. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.
  12. Redding, C.A., Rossi, J.S., Rossi, S.R., Velicer, W.F. and Prochaska, J.O. 2000. Health Behaviour Models. The International Electronic Journal of Health Education, 3 pp. 180-193.
  13. Perry, C. L., Barnowski, T., and Parcel, G. S. 1990. How individuals, environments, and health behavior interact: Social learning theory. In K. Glanz, F. M. Lewis and B. K. Rimer (Eds.), Health Behavior and Health Educaiton: Theory Research and Practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  14. Bandura, A. 1986. Social Foundations of Thought and Action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  15. Armitage, C.J. and Conner, M. 2001. Efficacy of the theory of planned behaviour: A meta‐analytic review. British journal of social psychology, 40 (4)pp.471-499.
  16. Ajzen, I. The Theory of Planned Behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 1991;50:179–211
  17. Hardeman, W., Johnston, M., Johnston, D., Bonetti, D., Wareham, N. and Kinmonth, A.L. Application of the theory of planned behaviour in behaviour change interventions: a systematic review. Psychology and health. 2001;17:2:123-158.
  18. Communication for Governance and Accountability Program. Theories of Behaviour Change. [online] Available from: [Accessed October 20 2012].
  19. Communication for Governance and Accountability Program. Theories of Behaviour Change. [online] Available from: [Accessed October 20 2012].
  20. 20.0 20.1 Velicer, W. F, Prochaska, J. O., Fava, J. L.,Norman, G. J., and Redding, C. A. 1998.Smoking cessation and stress management:Applications of the Transtheoretical Model of behavior change. Homeostasis, 38, pp. 216-233 retrieved from:
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Peterson, A. 2012. The Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change. University of Maryland Baltimore County. [Online source]Retrieved from:
  22. Lach, H. Everard, K. Highstein, G. Brownson, C. 2004. Application of the Transtheoretical Model to Health Education for Older Adults. Health Promotion Practice. 5 (1) pp. 88-93
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 Bibeau, W., Moore, J., Caudill, P. and Topp, R. 2008. Case Study of a Transtheoretical Case Management Approach to Addressing Childhood Obesity. Journal of Pediatric Nursing. 23 (2) pp. 92-100
  24. Sharma, M. and Romas, A. J. 2012. Theoretical foundations of health education and health promotion. Jones and Bartlett Learning. Sudbury, MA.
  25. Buckworth, Janet. Lee, Rebecca. Regan, Gail. Schneider, Lori., DiClemente, Carlo. 2005. Decomposing intrinsic and extrinsic motiation for exercise:Application to stages of motivational readiness.Psychology of Sport and Exercise 8 441-461.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Mason, H., Crabtree, V. Caudill, P. Topp, R. 2008. Childhood Obesity: A transtheoretical Case Management Approach. Journal of Pediatric Nursing. 23 (5) 337-344
  27. Plotnikoff, R.C., Lubans, D.R., Costigan, S.A. and McCargar, L. A Test of the Theory of Planned Behavior to Predict Physical Activity in an Overweight/Obese Population Sample of Adolescents From Alberta, Canada. 2012; Health Education & Behavior, .
  28. Boudreau, F., and Godin, G. Theory of planned behavior to predict exercise intention in obese adults. Canadian Journal of Nursing Research. 2007; 3:112-125.