Healthy Classrooms Boost Good Behavior + Learning
Schools play a powerful role in shaping students’ lifelong habits and behaviors. The classroom experience, in particular, is ripe with opportunities to seamlessly integrate physical activity and nutrition education into lessons and activities. In turn, healthy classroom activities improve classroom focus and behavior—and help decrease absenteeism.
For example, consider these findings from a CDC analysis of 23 years of peer-reviewed studies and published reports addressing the link between physical activity and academic performance:
Physical activity breaks during class can improve cognitive functioning, behavior, and achievement. Nearly all studies in this category found that offering physical activity breaks during standard classroom instruction may improve cognitive functioning, academic behaviors and/or academic achievement (e.g., test scores). Most interventions used short breaks that required little or no teacher preparation, special equipment or resources.
More broadly, healthy classrooms foster a culture of wellness at school, creating an environment where the healthy choice is the easy choice and wellness is the norm. This helps build strong lifelong habits and brings real benefits for student health, which in turn supports schools’ core educational mission.
What Is a Healthy Classroom?
A healthy classroom is about making health and wellness a seamless part of the classroom experience and incorporating healthy habits into how kids learn. In practice, this might include:
- Movement in the classroom, including brief physical activity breaks or lessons that integrate movement
- Nutrition education, both as a discrete subject and in the form of healthy messages integrated into other core subject areas
- Healthy classroom rewards and celebrations that focus on fun, not food
For more examples from CPS classrooms, visit our Fit to Learn program section.
What Teachers Are Saying
Teachers are seeing real results when they incorporate health and wellness into their classroom culture and activities.
“My students generally have better attitudes, more energy and less emotional outbursts, as compared with previous years.”
—Cherianne Barry, Ariel Elementary School
“The students get really excited about the activities, especially anything related to motor skills. Just getting them moving—they love it!”
—Deborah Davis, Hitch Elementary School
What CPS Is Doing
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has been ahead of the curve in adopting and implementing policies that prioritize student health and wellness, with recent steps such as expanding PE and supporting school gardening.
A key element of this progress has been the district’s adoption of an updated School Wellness Policy and Healthy Snack and Beverage Policy, and the commitment to putting these policies into practice at the school level.
School Wellness Policy
In 2012, CPS adopted an updated School Wellness Policy that set guidelines for nutrition education and physical activity, while formalizing several healthy practices that were already underway. The policy significantly raised the bar for school wellness and is especially relevant to healthy classrooms. The Wellness Policy requires that schools:
- Offer more nutrition education
- Offer daily recess at all elementary schools
- Include local procurement as part of the school food program
- Form a wellness team
- Designate someone to coordinate wellness efforts
- Include an indicator on each school’s progress report that tells parents and the public how effectively a school is implementing the district’s wellness policy
The Wellness Policy also specifies that schools must not:
- Sell unhealthy foods or beverages during the school day
- Use food as a reward
- Take away recess, PE or physical activity time as a punishment
The policy also includes a provision for regular review to assess its impact.
Healthy Snack and Beverage Policy
Also in 2012, CPS adopted a Healthy Snack and Beverage Policy that established nutrition standards for food available to students outside the school lunch program, including a la carte items sold in the cafeteria, vending machines and school stores. The policy addresses additional sources of unhealthy food in schools by supporting healthy school fundraising and healthy classroom celebrations.
The Healthy Snack and Beverage Policy is a powerful complement to the Wellness Policy. It’s especially relevant to creating healthy classroom environments and providing students with consistent healthy messages and experiences at school.
Next is the long-term work of implementing the policies every day and at every school. Evidence shows schools are making real progress. A recent survey of CPS schools shows many schools have identified a Wellness Champion to coordinate their wellness efforts and are implementing best practices such as holding recess before lunch. But large-scale change takes time, and many schools are still experiencing a period of adjustment and gradual implementation.
In this context, it’s especially important for district leaders to accurately measure what’s happening on the ground. CPS requires schools to submit quarterly reports to their Local School Councils to detail plans and progress in these areas and to submit annual surveys on their school wellness environment in general.
Every three years, CPS must review the Wellness Policy and assess its impact. We’re partnering with the district to co-convene an advisory committee to assess the effectiveness of policy implementation, make recommendations and share its findings with the Board of Education, schools and community and key stakeholders. The end goal is to improve upon the district’s already strong Wellness Policy and to continue the progress that’s been made.
What We’re Doing
We’re committed to supporting a culture of wellness in CPS with a strong focus on healthy classrooms. We were an active partner in advocating for the district’s Wellness Policy and Healthy Snack and Beverage policy, and our Fit to Learn program focuses on empowering educators to put these policies in practice.
Our approach to transforming the classroom experience is based on an effective and time-tested model of working with key stakeholders to empower, advocate and build.
We empower school stakeholders—teachers, administrators, students and parents, among others—to make the healthy changes they’d like to see at their schools. For example:
- Through our Fit to Learn program, we equip teachers with inspiration and practical tools to make health and wellness a central part of their classroom experience.
- Through our Parents United for Healthy Schools program, we engage parents in acquiring knowledge and skills to promote health at their children’s schools and to share information within the school community about the value of health-promoting changes such as non-food celebrations.
- In all of our on-the-ground work in Chicago, we maintain a consistent focus on the value of building and fostering a strong wellness team at every CPS school. This effort has empowered hundreds of parents, teachers, community members and others to lead health-promoting change at their schools.
We have consistently advocated for policies that support healthy classrooms across Chicago, including the most recent district-wide policies. For example:
- We brought together community organizations across Chicago to sign on in support of the draft Wellness Policy and Healthy Snack and Beverage Policy in the lead-up to the Chicago Board of Education’s vote. The board ultimately adopted both policies.
- HSC staff served as advisors to CPS leaders in developing the most recent wellness policy. In this capacity, we successfully advocated for a strong and practical policy that includes ongoing accountability measures.
- Through our Parents United program, we worked with parent leaders to collect thousands of parent signatures in support the district’s Wellness and Healthy Snack and Beverage Policies.
We understand that change doesn’t happen on its own and that new policies often require new skills or resources. That’s why we work to build the capacity of schools to put health-promoting ideas into practice and to maintain positive changes for the long run. For example:
- Through our Fit to Learn program, we work with CPS teachers and principals to build their schools’ capacity to implement the policies at the classroom level.
- We worked with CPS to support hundreds of schools in making changes related to healthy eating, physical activity and nutrition education as part of the HealthierUS School Challenge. Through this effort, principals set health-promoting policies at the school level regarding vending, fundraising, healthy classroom celebrations and other issues that are now addressed by district-wide policy.
- We have galvanized community-based food and fitness organizations across the city to provide customized support (such as nutrition education resources) to individual schools.
What You Can Do
Your voice and your actions matter in the movement to make schools healthier places for all children to learn and grow.
- If you are a CPS teacher or principal, you can get involved in our Fit to Learn program.
- If you are the parent of a CPS student, we encourage you to join or create a wellness team at your school (keep reading for more), learn about tools to help create healthy change in your school, stay informed with HSC’s Chicago newsletter and connect with other parents through our Parents United for Healthy Schools program.
- If you are a school nurse, you can learn more about our School Nurse Leadership program.
- We invite and encourage everyone to learn more about and support our Cooking up Change, Space to Grow and national policies that impact all students.
Join or Create a Wellness Team
You can create change at your school by joining or creating a wellness team. The CPS Wellness Policy requires that all schools have a wellness team and a wellness champion to spearhead school health and wellness initiatives. Wellness teams are typically comprised of parents, PE teachers, classroom teachers, school health professionals, students, school administrators and community health and wellness partners. If your school already has a wellness team, we encourage you to join!
If your school does not have a wellness team and you’d like to start one, contact your school principal. Here are some tips to get started:
Recruit team members. Begin by reaching out to the school principal; parents; teachers; the school nurse; facilities managers; school nutrition and food service leaders; and students. Also, consider inviting community members who may bring a particular skill or interest to promoting school health.
Identify goals. When your team is in place, assess your school’s current needs. What are the most pressing challenges with student health and wellness? Outline your resources, what outcomes you want and what barriers you might face trying to get there. Think about the opportunities that currently exist and the strengths you can find in your community.
Develop a plan. Now that you’ve identified your goals, write them down. Identify the strategies and milestones you can use to measure progress. Also, outline the step-by-step activities that will take you to success. Give allies on your team responsibility for specific steps.
Take the first step. Remember that you don’t need to do everything at once. Often, a pilot program will be the best way to gain acceptance for your goals, work out any logistical problems and test different methods.
Rate your progress. Regularly review the measurable outcomes you identified in your plan. Identify which steps have been taken, which milestones have been accomplished and what else needs to be done. If you’ve received any feedback, consider that in your progress report. Also, review the lessons you’re learning along the way.
Give high fives. Celebrate your progress! To keep your team engaged and motivated, it can’t be all work and no play. Take time to recognize the steps you take successfully and the people working hard to make it happen.
Stay Informed + Stay Connected
Informing yourself about the issues involved in school health and sharing this information with others is an important step in creating meaningful change. It’s about learning, sharing and sparking conversations that get people thinking. We encourage you to:
- Check out our Resource Center
- Sign up to receive our newsletters
- Connect with us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @healthyschools
Make a Donation
As a nonprofit organization, we rely on support from people like you so we can continue to make schools healthier places where all children can learn and thrive. Your gift—large or small—will make a meaningful difference.
Access related resources below, or go to our main Resource Center to access resources across all of our program and policy areas.