Creators of a pilot program that educates preschoolers about good heart health have validated a template for successful early childhood intervention that, they claim, provides a pathway for translating scientific evidence into the community and classroom for educational purposes to encourage long-lasting lifestyle changes.
That validation supports the creators' plans to take the program into more schools.
They reported key lessons in crafting the program, known as the SI! Program (for Salud Integral-Comprehensive Health), online in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
“This is a research-based program that uses randomized clinical trial evidence with implementation strategies to design educational health promotion programs,” senior author Valentin Fuster, MD, PhD, founder and trustees chairman of the Foundation for Science, Health, and Education (SHE) based in Barcelona, under whose aegis the SI! Program was implemented, said in an interview. Dr. Fuster is also director of Mount Sinai Heart and physician-in-chief at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, and general director of the National Center for Cardiovascular Investigation (CNIC) in Madrid, Spain’s equivalent of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
“There are specific times in a child’s life when improvements can be made to enhance long-term cardiovascular health status,” said Rodrigo Fernández-Jiménez, MD, PhD, group leader of the cardiovascular health and imaging lab at CNIC and study coauthor. “Our review, and previous studies, suggest that 4-5 years of age is the most favorable time to start a school-based intervention focused on healthy habits.”
A key piece of the SI! Program used a Sesame Street character, known as Dr. Ruster, a Muppet based on Dr. Fuster, to introduce and convey most messages and activities to the preschool children. The program also used a heart-shaped mascot named “Cardio” to teach about healthy behaviors. Other components include video segments, a colorful storybook, an interactive board game, flash cards, and a teacher’s guide. The activities and messages were tailored based on the country in which the program was implemented.
A decade of experience
The review evaluated 10 years of experience with the preschool-based program, drawing upon cluster-randomized clinical trials of the program in three countries with different socioeconomic conditions: Colombia, Spain, and the United States. The studies randomized schools to receive the SI! Program for 4 months or to a control group and included more than 3,800 children from 50 schools, along with their parents or caregivers and teachers. The studies found significant increases in preschoolers’ knowledge, attitudes, and habits toward healthy eating and living an active lifestyle. Now, the SI! Program is expanding into more than 250 schools in Spain and more than 40 schools in all five boroughs of New York City.
“This is a multidimensional program,” Dr. Fuster said. The review identified five stages for implementing the program: dissemination; adoption; implementation; evaluation; and institutionalization.
Dissemination involves three substages for intervention: components, design, and strategy. With regard to the components, said Dr. Fuster, “We’re targeting children to educate them in four topics: how the body works; nutritional and dietary requirements; physical activity; and the need to control emotions – to say no in the future when they’re confronted with alcohol, drugs, and tobacco.”
Design involved a multidisciplinary team of experts to develop the intervention, Dr. Fuster said. The strategy itself enlists parents and teachers in the implementation, but goes beyond that. “This is a community,” Dr. Fuster said. Hence, the school environment and classroom itself are also engaged to support the message of the four topics.
Dr. Fuster said future research should look at knowledge, attitude, and habits and biological outcomes in children who’ve been in the SI! Program when they reach adolescence. “Our hypothesis is that we can do this in older children, but when they reach age 10 we want to reintervene in them,” Dr. Fuster said. “Humans need reintervention. Our findings don’t get into sustainability.” He added that further research should also identify socioeconomic factors that influence child health.
Expanding the program across the New York City’s five boroughs “offers a unique opportunity to explore which socioeconomic factors, at both the family and borough level, and may eventually affect children’s health, how they are implicated in the intervention’s effectiveness, and how they can be addressed to reduce the gap in health inequalities,” he said.
Karalyn Kinsella, MD, a pediatrician affiliated with Yale New Haven (Conn.) Medical Center, noted the program’s multidimensional nature is an important element. “I think what is so important about this intervention is that it is not one single intervention but a curriculum that takes a significant amount of time (up to 50 hours) that allows for repetition of the information, which allows it to become remembered,” she said in an interview. “I also think incorporating families in the intervention is key as that is where change often has to happen.”
While she said the program may provide a template for a mental health curriculum, she added, “My concern is that teachers are already feeling overwhelmed and this may be viewed as another burden.”
The American Heart Association provided funding for the study in the United States. Dr Fernández-Jiménez has received funding from the Fondo de Investigación Sanitaria–Instituto de Salud Carlos III, which is cofunded by the European Regional Development Fund/European Social Fund. Dr. Fuster and Dr. Kinsella have no relevant disclosures.