Health in Mind: Improving Education Through Wellness

May 08, 2012

This week, we’re excited to share more about our newest initiative, Health in Mind: Improving Education Through Wellness. Tomorrow, May 9, we will release policy recommendations from Health in Mind to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius at a special event in Washington, D.C.  Stay posted for updates!

Educators know that healthy students are better prepared to learn and succeed in school. Yet current health and education policy misses several simple, vital opportunities to boost academic success through health promotion and school wellness. The nation’s children are struggling academically and could become the first generation to live shorter and less healthy lives than their parents. At the same time, our nation faces a growing achievement gap that research increasingly connects to health disparities.

It is for this reason that HSC is partnering with Trust for America’s Health on this exciting new initiative. This effort focuses on policy recommendations for immediate, practical changes at the federal level to help close the achievement gap and create a healthy future for all children.

The Challenge

The link between health and learning is clear. Healthy, active and well-nourished children are more likely to attend school, be engaged, and be ready to learn. Often, however, the school setting does not support health. In today’s school environments, all too many students spend their days in buildings with unhealthy air, do not have the opportunity to be active, and do not have access to fresh water, nutritious food or a school nurse. Many students come to school with one or more health problems that compromise their ability to learn. The prevalence of chronic diseases — including asthma, obesity and diabetes — has doubled among children over the past several decades. This has implications not only for children’s long-term health but also for their opportunities to learn and succeed at school.

This challenge is especially critical in light of the vast health disparities that exist in our nation. Low-income minority students are at increased risk of health problems that hinder learning. These same students are more likely to attend schools that do not provide health-promoting environments; for example, they often attend school in buildings with unhealthy indoor air and lack opportunities such as recess to be physically active during the day. Research continues to link health disparities to the minority achievement gap and suggest that unless we address these health disparities, efforts to close the education achievement gap will be compromised.

The Obama administration has made addressing the achievement gap a top priority. In the past two years, the federal government has also demonstrated a strong commitment to disease prevention and health promotion with initiatives including the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign and the release of the National Prevention Strategy.

The purpose of Health in Mind is to delineate strategies that federal agencies can deploy to create the conditions for health and learning in our nation’s schools. These immediate, practical strategies can serve as a starting point for broader change in the health and education sectors.

Creating the Conditions for Health and Learning

To truly support learning, schools must create the conditions for health. Given the strong connection between health and learning, this is central to schools’ core mission of student learning.

What does it mean for schools to support student health? A healthier school environment is one which supports students’ well-being and in which student health builds a foundation for learning. In this environment, good nutrition, physical activity, basic safety, clean air and water, access to care, and education about how to make healthy choices allow students to thrive. In a healthy school, students learn—through lessons and through example—to value their own health and wellness.

These recommendations reflect a new approach to making health and wellness part of the school experience. This means that wellness is not relegated to an occasional health lesson or physical education class—it is part of math, science, lunch and everything in between. It means providing teachers with professional development related to children’s physical and emotional development, and integrating health into every subject, reward system and classroom management strategy.

Achieving this ultimate vision will require leadership and commitment at many levels, from classrooms to Washington, D.C. The goal and challenge of Health in Mind is to make concrete recommendations that fall within the federal government’s role and can have a significant and sustainable impact on two national priorities: reducing the achievement gap and transforming our health care system.

Tomorrow, we will present these recommendations to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. Stay posted for updates and the full recommendations!