3 innovative ways to make school health a daily practice

As National Childhood Obesity Month highlights, school health isn’t just about medical emergencies

Medical emergencies are attention-grabbing. In New York, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, preventable student injuries and fatalities have helped draw focus to the lack of school health services and school nurses.

Many schools will never face those kinds of high-profile incidents — or have to deal with the fallout, either. But that doesn’t mean school health and student wellness isn’t important. September is National Childhood Obesity Month, and it’s a good time for schools to take a look at their approach to student health — and the way that approach supports student learning. For example, school health initiatives can be a tool for encouraging academic improvement. Research has found that common issues like asthma, colds, obesity, and lack of physical activity can provide real barriers to student learning. 

For example, ill students or students suffering from chronic poor health may struggle to pay attention in class or perform well on tests. At a more basic level, one expert said that school wellness programs, including immunizations, are the most effective attendance programs a school can oversee. If schools can help prevent diseases like whooping cough or the common cold for students, they could very well see a return in attendance.

“Immunization programs are amazing public health systems. But they’re also amazing school attendance programs,” said David Lohrmann, a school health expert and professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. “You go through three, four diseases, you’re going to miss a lot of school.”

That’s not new knowledge, exactly, but it’s taken on greater importance as schools look at how to improve performance in an era of heightened accountability and efforts to close gaps between affluent and impoverished students, who have vastly different healthcare experiences.

So, as a followup to last week's look at how to prepare for medical emergencies, here’s a look at three ways schools can make wellness a bigger part of everyday classroom management.

Standing desks

Office furniture that encourages movement, like standing or walking desks, has become de riguer in corporate settings as a way to improve productivity and employee satisfaction while lowering healthcare costs. Now, schools are turning to things like standing desks as a way to help students stay active and blow off excess energy while they learn.

For example, Alexandria Country Day School, a K-8 school in Alexandria, VA, has added standing desks for both students and teachers in middle school and ergonomic furniture in elementary school. The move accomplishes two things at once. One, teachers can easily rearrange their classrooms to suit their instructional needs. Two, students expend more energy and are more likely to stay engaged and on-task.

School lunch

Healthier eating in schools has been one of the big pushes of the Obama administration — and a particular focus of First Lady Michelle Obama. The result is that each school that receives U.S. Department of Agriculture money must have a school wellness plan, and policies require more whole grains and more vegetables in school lunches.

Some districts have taken the opportunity to rethink their entire approach to nutrition and overhaul school breakfast and lunch with freshly-cooked meals, as well as smaller shifts like healthy treats for school-run fundraisers. That can help even the playing field between rich and poor students — and it doesn’t just have to include what students eat at school. Teachers can also talk to students about healthy eating habits and body image. Many curriculum providers offer short units on the subject.

School health clinics

School health clinics can run the gamut from volunteer-run wellness centers to hand out bandaids and dole out medicine to full-blown medical facilities sited on school campuses that provide medical care to students and families. Whatever the level, this is the biggest shift and requires the most commitment on the part of school and district administrators. But in places where full-time health clinics have been placed on school campuses, administrators say their presence has encouraged parent engagement and supported a whole-child approach to education.

Clinics can also help narrow healthcare disparities between students from poorer families and their more affluent peers. For example, Denver has incorporated school health providers into its new school campus in Far Northeast — one of the poorest regions of the city. The campus includes childcare providers, as well as an elementary, middle, and high school, and includes a clinic that provides healthcare for students and their relatives.

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Filed Under: K12 Policy & Regulation
Top image credit: USDA