Schools need to step up obesity fight
My guest is Sean Slade, director of Healthy School Communities, a program of the ASCD, an educational leadership organization.
We’ve heard a lot about childhood obesity lately. The federal government has become more serious about the health and well-being of our kids, perhaps most obviously through First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative which seeks to eliminate childhood obesity within a generation.
The First Lady’s call to action focuses on four key areas: updating child nutrition policies, ensuring access to healthy food both in schools and in the community, increasing physical activity and empowering parents and caregivers with the information and tools they need to make good choices for themselves and their children.
I agree on all counts and admire "Let’s move!" as a catch phrase for what she has in mind, but would also argue that we need to “move” our thinking about the connection between health and education.
Some of the health goals of "Let’s Move!" can be achieved without the explicit help of schools. But as our kids are in school more than seven hours a day, what happens at school (and how and why it happens) has a direct influence on what they do, think, eat, and learn.
Schools have a role and influence surpassed only by that of the family.
One of the longtime barriers to improving kids’ health has been the separation of health from the education process, especially at the school level—in short, a “siloing” of health as an adjunct process to education.
Unfortunately, efforts that are not initially viewed as academically beneficial are too frequently relegated to the sidelines in schools. Such efforts struggle to make a lasting impact, often resulting in programmatic changes that are temporary, selective, and rolled back when funding, interest, or the project time line expires.
How many times have we seen a disconnect between what takes place in the classroom and what follows in the school at large? Students go from a health lesson on nutrition to cafeterias that serve junk food. Too often we fund athletic programs by selling candy, or cut recess (and its inherent opportunity for physical activity) in the name of higher test scores.
Even when schools make an effort to get things right, we find sporadic or token efforts at anti-harassment or mental health education—a one-off assembly that targets some but not all sections of the school and is rarely followed by whole-school policy change. It is also rare to see all school staff—including counselors, cafeteria staff, and athletic directors—involved in the school improvement process. Instead this crucial planning is often left to administrators and senior educational staff.
I believe it’s time to “move” on creating systemic change in education—not another program that gets cut when funding is tight or a day set aside to promote some cause or even a new curriculum that is contradicted by the activities and priorities within a school. But real change to the policies and practices that make up not only what schools do but how and why they do it.
It’s time to move educators and school administrators to value physical, social, emotional and mental health as not only inextricably linked to academic performance but also foundational to the real goal of education—preparing young people for life, including meaningful work, further education, and active participation in our global society.
So where do we start? First, educators and administrators need to view health concerns as equal in importance to academic ones. Health and academics are intrinsically linked, and we have ample evidence to show that health directly affects student learning outcomes. But it’s more than that. At a fundamental level what is needed is a common understanding that health is as important to the development of the individual—the whole child—as academic achievement.
Secondly, discussions of health need to encompass more than just physical health, and include mental, social and emotional health. Focusing only on the physical ignores key aspects of not only our overall health but of who we are. It makes the siloing of health in the school setting easier, as it becomes only the responsibility of the food services managers, PE staff, and—for the too few schools that have them—the school nurse.
The Let’s Move! initiative starts the process by seeking changes to nutritional policy and increasing the amount of physical activity time available to students. However, these changes focus primarily on the physical and have the potential to remain solely programmatic.
Let’s take this initiative further. Let’s move health—physical, social, mental, and emotional— into the policies and processes of the school. Let’s establish schools that not only teach healthy behavior but also promote it—not only via the cafeteria and gymnasium, but in every corridor and classroom and out into the community.
Let’s seek to provide a setting and develop a school climate where students accept that being healthy is desired, achievable, expected, and important.
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| February 26, 2010; 9:45 AM ET
Categories: Guest Bloggers, Health | Tags: health, obesity
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