A New Approach to School Health

  • June 17, 2015
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By Rochelle Davis, HSC President + CEO

To truly support learning, schools need to create the conditions for health for all students. This means creating a healthier school environment, which supports students’ well-being and 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 will allow students to thrive. In a healthy school environment, students learn — through lessons and through examples — to value their own health and wellness.

We need this new approach to making health and wellness part of the school experience. We need an approach where 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, integrating health into reward systems and classroom management strategies. Achieving this ultimate vision will require leadership and commitment at many levels, from classrooms to Washington, D.C.

We were pleasantly surprised to see the Senate version of the Elementary Secondary Education Act (ESEA) include language that will support health and wellness in schools. It is expected that this bill will be debated on the Senate floor as early as next week.

In April, we reported that the U.S. Senate passed their version of ESEA out of committee and how it could have real impact on student health. Two months later, not only do we still believe this can begin an important process of change, but we believe that the language has been improved. Now, to be real, this bill is a series of compromises that are designed to get through a very partisan Senate, and possibly get through an even more partisan House. It’s imperfect and it’s controversial. But it’s also a bill that tries to do some things that we haven’t seen before.

In particular, we see tremendous value in three elements: the inclusion of chronic absenteeism in state plans; the requirements that schools do needs assessments to access health and wellness funding; and the inclusion of school climate (including chronic absenteeism) in assessing needs for professional development programs.

What’s interesting, is nowhere in the above list is the word “health.” You read words such as assessment, climate and absenteeism. This is the language of educators, but the meaning to us is clear. When students miss school, their learning suffers, and research shows that health-related issues account for a large percentage of student absences. By recognizing these issues in needs assessments for schools, in professional development assessments and in state plans, we are starting to lay a groundwork for health and wellness in our schools that can be part of, rather than separate from, the education system.

It’s still early, and there are many political challenges – most of which have nothing to do with health and wellness of children. However, it seems that there is an important shift in this bill that can help create conditions for health in our nation’s schools.