Using dialogue in mandated nutrition classes

Participants make content relevant to their lives

Following a nutrition class using dialogue education at a center that oversees the California Women Infants and Children (WIC) Program, participants applauded.

This act of support was quite a transformation from the "I don't want to be here, so let's get this over with" attitude many people generally had when attending the mandated classes.

In addition to receiving coupons to purchase nutritional foods for infants and children, program participants must periodically attend teaching sessions on breast feeding, physical activity, food safety, sanitation, nutrients, and other health topics. The problem was, most of the classes were not working, says Michael Elfant, MS, RD, a public health nutritionist with the California Department of Health Services WIC Program.

To improve classes, the principles of dialogue education now are incorporated into the curriculum design. Rather than teaching nutrition, the instructors teach adults, and that is a big difference, says Elfant. "Education that results in behavior change is very different from just recounting the benefits of a particular food," he explains.

At the beginning of a class, instructors try to have a good open-ended question that invites dialogue between participants and helps them think about their life experiences and how they are connected to the information being taught.

For example, if the topic is on developmental cues for starting infants on solid foods, the instructor might ask participants to turn to the person next to them and discuss two amazing new things their infant did in the last couple of weeks.

The topic then is introduced with good visuals of developmental signs, and participants are asked to recommend different foods that would be appropriate for the various stages. In this way, they learn to apply the information.

"Finally, we try to end with a way for them to visualize and anticipate what they will do when they get home, because it doesn't really matter what goes on in our classrooms; what matters is what they do when they leave," says Elfant.

The classes are only about 20 minutes, so one or two important items are covered rather than lots of information the participants have trouble remembering.

"We try to have the learner do 50% of the talking and the doing so the teacher is doing half the talking or less," says Elfant.