Creating a Culture of Wellness with Healthy Rewards and Celebrations at School

March 14, 2011

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A healthy birthday treat, as demonstrated at a recent Fit to Learn training

Eliminating sweet treats from your classroom or school may seem like a daunting task, especially as you seek ways to reward students for good behavior. Sweet treats and food-based celebrations have become ingrained in the culture of some schools, making the idea of healthy change seem even more challenging. As one teacher put it, “I don't want to feel like the bad guy in my school if I'm the only one not giving out candy or celebrating birthdays with cake.”

But fun and healthy alternatives do exist! Experience shows that these rewards can be very effective and can play an important role is creating a culture of wellness at a school.

Phyllis Powell Pelt, RN, MS, ILCSN, has 19 years of school nursing experience under her belt and plenty of great ideas on healthier rewards and treats that still keep kids engaged and excited.

At one of the schools where Pelt worked, the staff created a unique and healthy birthday tradition.

“We used to take a watermelon, cut it in half and stick candles inside instead of using a cake. Parents were so amazed at how tickled their kids were and the kids were excited because they were receiving recognition,” said Pelt.

Pelt emphasized that when making change, it’s important to get as many people on board as possible. She says this effort must be intergenerational. Working directly with the parents, grandparents, PTA/PTO members and other members of the school community is key to success. Creativity can help in building these connections.

“At one school, they created a program called 'Be Healthy Be Smart' and one of the parents came to the school dressed as a bee. He handed out pineapple samples in his costume,” said Pelt. 

She says that many kids were apprehensive about trying the fruit, but after some gentle guidance by the teachers, kids were taking their first bites.

“By the end of the year, parents were telling us that kids were pointing out fruit at the grocery store that they tried in school,” said Pelt. “A year ago, some of those kids had never even eaten a tomato.”

Pelt said that efforts are most successful when everyone in the school is committed to the process and willing to play a role in creating a culture of wellness. For example, office staff can play a role by switching out their candy jars in exchange for stickers or other healthy treats.

Pelt encouraged teachers and school staff to “try gradually moving away” from unhealthy treats. “For something like this to become the norm is a challenge, but cooperation brings success when everyone is looking at a bigger vision,” she said.

Plus! Click here for more tips on rewarding students without candy!

Interested in learning more about how to make wellness a regular part of the school experience? Check out HSC's new Fit to Learn program!