January 16, 2015 by

Exploring Learning and Health: What Influences a Child’s Ability to Learn?

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By Sean Slade

What Influences a Child's Ability to LearnGlance over this list.

  • Below-grade-level reading ability
  • Below-grade-level math ability
  • Hunger
  • Poor disciplinary record
  • Bullying
  • Poor vision
  • Violence
  • Lack of connectedness
  • Homelessness

Which of these factors influence a child’s ability to learn? Which do we focus attention on? Which do we ignore?

The truth is that to pay attention to or ignore any of these factors is a choice, and, regardless of whether or not we want to admit it, each greatly influences a child’s ability to learn. We have decided that there are things that are “educationally acceptable” to consider and others that are “socially acceptable” to ignore. But these factors are not educationally or socially acceptable to ignore. They all influence a child’s ability to learn. Are we going to keep ignoring them or are we prepared to make adjustments, considerations, and changes? Whether we like it or not, whether we believe that we have the time or not, whether we feel we have the ability or not, they all influence what we are trying to do. We don’t need to be able to solve everything to make a difference, but to do nothing is to bury our heads in the sand leaving us to wring our hands when great teaching fails. The reasons why we do or don’t make a difference are staring back at us every day in every classroom.

So, what should we do? The most direct answer is to pay attention and accept that there are factors that originate outside of the classroom that influence learning. The second thing to do is to accept that we can influence how these factors play out with regard to teaching and learning. While we may not be able to fully control everything, we can certainly influence the degree to which certain things are targeted, tackled, or adjusted for and, in doing, so ameliorate their harmful effects.

We already focus much attention on students’ below-grade-level abilities in certain subject areas. However, we too often put things such as hunger, violence, and homelessness in the “too hard” bucket. But these things can and need to be addressed.

Hunger can be treated and it can have immediate effects. Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign works to ensure that students everywhere have access to the food they need to thrive. In particular, the campaign focuses on providing healthy in-school breakfasts for students, which can “have a dramatic impact on their academic, health and economic futures” (“No Kid Hungry Starts with Breakfast” [PDF], 2013).

Violence—both inside and outside the school—can also be tackled. A research report from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute describes the situation in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and highlights the key difference between safe and unsafe schools:

In many CPS schools, teachers, and students report feeling unsafe in hallways, classrooms, and the area just outside the school building. Yet, in many other Chicago schools—even some schools serving large populations of students from high-poverty, high-crime areas—students and teachers do feel safe. What distinguishes these schools? This report shows that it is the quality of relationships between staff and students and between staff and parents that most strongly defines safe schools. (“Student and Teacher Safety in Chicago Public Schools: The Roles of Community Context and School Social Organization” [PDF], 2011)

And the effects of homelessness, although not something that teachers and school staff can eliminate completely, can be mitigated. According to a report by Elizabeth A. Mizerek, in conjunction with the National Association of School Psychologists,

schools in particular are very important in the lives of homeless youth. In fact, schools may be the only place that provides stability in their daily lives and gives these students a sense of self-worth. . . . Supports and opportunities should be provided to enhance students’ social, psychological, and academic competence. (“Homeless Students in the Schools: Information for Educators” [PDF], 2004)

Other factors that affect students, such as vision and asthma, are frequently addressed by partnering with local health services and community agencies/organizations. One such organization is the School-Based Health Alliance, which promotes the implementation of school-based health centers (SBHCs). According to the Alliance,

SBHCs exist at the intersection of education and health and are the caulk that prevents children and adolescents from falling through the cracks. They provide care—primary health, mental health and counseling, family outreach, and chronic illness management—without concern for the student’s ability to pay and in a location that meets students where they are: at school. (About School-Based Health Centers)

In order to even start the process of addressing these factors, schools need to truly understand and appreciate the effects that these factors have on children and their learning. Policies need to be adjusted and accommodations need to be made the norm rather than the exception. Schools must realize that support services not only aid the student but also the staff, the school, and the processes of teaching and learning.

WSCC Model and the ASCD School Improvement Tool

In March 2014, ASCD and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) launched the next evolution of the coordinated school health approach, the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) model. The WSCC model provides a framework for schools and districts to ensure that the necessary supports are in place to serve the whole child and his or her growth, development, and education. The factors discussed above relate to the health and safety of children, both of which are integral components of the WSCC model. In November, ASCD also launched an upgraded School Improvement Tool that allows schools to see where they are with regard to these supports and begins the process of ensuring they are aligned to the educational improvement process of the school.

As part of a research initiative led by the Campaign for Educational Equity, Charles E. Basch reflects on and summarizes the grave importance of prioritizing the health, safety, and overall well-being of students:

No matter how well teachers are prepared to teach, no matter what accountability measures are put in place, no matter what governing structures are established for schools, educational progress will be profoundly limited if students are not motivated and able to learn. . . . Even if health factors had no effect on educational outcomes, they clearly influence the quality of life for youth and their ability to contribute and live productively in a democratic society. Improving the health of youth is a worthy goal for elementary and secondary education. Indeed, pursuing this goal is a moral imperative. (“Healthier Students Are Better Learners: A Missing Link in School Reforms to Close the Achievement Gap” [PDF], 2010)

Sean Slade is Senior Director of Global Outreach. During his more than two decades in education, Slade has written extensively on topics related to the whole child and health and well-being and has been at the forefront of promoting school climate, connectedness, resilience, and a youth development focus for school improvement. He has been a teacher, head of department, educational researcher, senior education officer, and director. He has taught, trained, and directed education initiatives in Australia, Italy, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, and the United States.