Why Healthy Students Are Better Learners

  • August 25, 2015
Healthy Students 510 310 S C1 Center

While students are busy stuffing their backpacks full of new folders, notebooks and pencils, we at Healthy Schools Campaign are gearing up for a new school year, too. But our focus isn’t on school supplies or new outfits but on an important aspect of the school experience that often gets overlooked: health and wellness.

The start of the school year is a great time to revisit the research behind health and learning and to renew our commitment to providing a healthy school environment for all students.

A healthy school environment — full of nutritious school meals, health-promoting cleaning products, physical activity and green schoolyards — sets students up for success in the classroom and beyond. At HSC, our work stems from the core belief that healthy students are better learners and all students — regardless of race or socioeconomic background — deserve a healthy school environment that supports their well-being and builds a foundation for learning. In a healthy school, students are able to thrive with access to good nutrition, physical activity, basic safety, clean air and water, health services and education about how to make healthy choices.

Studies document what teachers, parents and education leaders know: healthy students are more likely to attend school and are better able to focus in class, which ultimately leads to higher test scores and overall higher classroom achievement. Studies show that students with better nutrition have better attention spans, better class participation and higher test scores. In some cases, improved nutrition even reduced behavioral problems.

For example, physical activity breaks during standard classroom instruction have been shown to improve concentration, classroom conduct and test scores. A studypublished in Neuroscience found kids had more accurate responses on standardized tests when they were tested after moderate exercise compared to being tested after 20 minutes of sitting still. Research results lend support to the idea that just a small amount of exercise before class helps boost kids’ learning skills and attention spans.

Breakfast in particular has a strong link to educational outcomes—even more so than other meals—because of the way the brain responds to food after the short fast during sleep. An extensive body of research documents the ways that breakfast consumption positively influences students’ cognitive functioning, focus, attention and emotional well-being. Based on child nutrition studies conducted across the country, Harvard researchers have concluded school breakfast helps children: improve their standardized test scores, improve their math grades, improve their reading abilities, pay better attention and stay more alert. Breakfast is also shown to increase student attendance rates and decrease discipline problems, meaning students and teachers have more time in class to focus on education.

In Chicago, we’ve worked closely with Chicago Public Schools (CPS), local community members and our partners to make positive changes for the district’s 400,000 students who are mostly low-income students of color. Over the past several years, CPS has committed to raising nutrition standards, reinstating daily recess and making high-quality daily physical education a core part of the curriculum. This is remarkable and exciting progress for one of the largest school districts in the country. We are now starting to rethink school health services so that students can have access to more coordinated and comprehensive care.

We’re asking you to join us in making schools healthier places to learn. If you’re a teacher, you can incorporate small physical activity breaks in your classroom. If you’re a parent, you can work to improve the quality of the school food at your local school. Let’s all agree to start this school year off on a healthy foot!