Improving Schools: (Healthy) Food For Thought

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Whole Child

By Sean Slade

Health affects education and education affects health—it’s as simple as that. The relationship between the two can even be described as symbiotic. While improving health can boost achievement and worsening health can severely affect learning outcomes (regardless of the teacher or the curriculum), imagine what could happen if we actually implemented a coordinated plan to have these two sectors work together and benefit each other.

So, how does health positively affect education?health and education

  1. Attendance. Absenteeism has been cited as one of the biggest factors hampering learning. Inevitably, if a child isn’t at school, it becomes somewhat difficult to learn from what’s going on in the school setting. And, while physical health is a main reason why students are absent from school—for reasons such as illness, asthma, vision problems, and pregnancy, just to name a few—many stay away from school because of mental and emotional health stressors like threats, bullying, and social exclusion that occur both inside and outside of school. Improving the health of students makes them available, both physically and mentally, to attend school and learn every day.
  2. Engagement. Students feel a greater sense of belonging and connectedness (PDF) in schools that have a healthy climate and culture. While physical health plays a role, a healthy learning environment is also determined by the positive social-emotional climate of the school. Students who report reduced levels of anxiety are more likely to be engaged in the classroom and more likely to excel at school.
  3. Cognition. Factors like physical activity, nutrition, sleep, and stress reduction all affect the cognitive abilities of the brain. And not just the ability to pay attention but also the ability to remember and retain information as well. Eric Jensen, author of the ASCD book Teaching with the Brain in Mind 2nd Edition writes

“An astonishingly high 68 percent of high school students in the United States do not participate in a daily physical education program (Grunbaum et al., 2002). Why should we be concerned? Because in the same way that exercise shapes up the muscles, heart, lungs, and bones, it also strengthens the basal ganglia, cerebellum, and corpus callosum—all key areas of the brain. We know exercise fuels the brain with oxygen, but it also feeds it neurotropins (high-nutrient chemical “packages”) to increase the number of connections between neurons.” (2005)

Unhealthy environments, poor nutrition (sometimes simply from a lack of breakfast), exposure to violence (PDF), and feeling unconnected (PDF)—all of these are factors that influence learning. Lloyd Kolbe, in a State Education Standard (PDF) article, underscores this point, stating that “if American schools do not coordinate and modernize their school health programs as a critical part of educational reform . . . we will forfeit one of the most appropriate and powerful means available to improve student performance” (2002).

On the flip side, how does education positively affect health?

  1. Longevity. On average, graduates from high school live an additional 6–9 years (PDF) compared to those who don’t complete secondary education. Why? High school graduates tend to make better choices and live healthier lifestyles as a result of higher income, greater access to health care, and a lower likelihood of living in unhealthy environments.
  2. Less illness. Along with increased longevity, those who complete high school are likely to have fewer bouts of illness and less severe illness. Education attainment becomes a virtuous cycle and, unfortunately, lack of education becomes a vicious one.
  3. Less hospitalization (and more savings). Fewer bouts of illness and lower severity of illness both equate to less need for health services and, ultimately, hospitalization. All told, this is beneficial not only for the individual—the greatest cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. is unpaid medical bills—but also for society. Whether it’s less hospitalization, fewer sick days, or just greater productivity, health has a direct link (PDF) to our personal economy and our nation’s economic success.

It’s important to keep in mind that while these benefits are all very good, they tend to arise more out of happenstance than by design. What would or could happen if we actively established wrap-around services and made our schools the social service hubs of the community? What if we actively taught preservice teachers and aspiring principals the value of a positive, healthy school climate? What if we made physical activity a critical part of the learning process throughout the day? And rather than trust that graduates will make healthier decisions and have greater access to health care, what if we taught students about how to live healthy lifestyles and seek out healthy environments?

For a more detailed look at these and other issues related to education and health, read Charles Basch’s Healthier Students are Better Learners (PDF) and download the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new Health and Academic Achievement (PDF) talking points.