A study of first-grade students in rural schools found that overweight children are more disliked by teachers and fellow students than children with a healthy weight.

"Children with weight problems are experiencing a negative social environment very early in their educational experience," the study says. "This is significant because other research shows that children who are rejected or unhappy in school have trouble learning."

Researchers at Oklahoma State University and the University of Arkansas studied 1,139 first-graders in 29 rural schools where obesity risk is especially high. Each child was weighed and measured and a body mass index score calculated; each child was classified as having healthy weight, or being overweight or obese.

Children then were shown photos of classmates and asked how much (on a 1-to-3 scale) they liked to play with each child, and the researchers calculated a score for each child representing the average of the ratings. A similar procedure was used to determine how the teachers perceived each child’s acceptance by the other kids in his or her classroom.

According to both the children’s and teachers’ reports, both overweight and obese children were significantly more disliked than healthy-weight children.

The findings also provide clues about why some children’s weight problems increase with age, the study says.

"If overweight children are disliked at school, they may be less likely to play actively on the playground, during physical activity classes, and after school," it says. "They may also be more likely to engage in emotional eating as a way to cope with feeling bad at school."

Based on the findings, the researchers are recommending that obesity prevention programs start early and should involve peers, not just the overweight children themselves.