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Posted at 9:45 AM ET, 02/26/2010

Schools need to step up obesity fight

By Valerie Strauss

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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By Valerie Strauss  | February 26, 2010; 9:45 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Health  | Tags:  health, obesity  
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I second your motion! As a mother of three children and a former teacher, I have been outraged and flabbergasted at the turn our education system has taken. They have removed all of the "outlets" children need: Recess (drastically reduced in the amount of time allowed, Music and Art have been almost eliminated from most curriculum, Down-time or Study Hall opportunities are no longer available, etc.). When these outlets are taken out of the school day, then what is a child supposed to do?

The infuriating part of this is, most educators have suggested that learning disorders such as ADD and ADHD are on the rise and feel that medication is the best answer. Educators have forgotten one very basic concept. Children need to be CHILDREN. They need to run, play, sing, draw, paint, laugh and be active!!! I agree that courses such as math, science, language arts, are very important but educating a child needs to be a lot broader than that.

As a parent, I have been placed in a position to seek several different learning environments for the best possible education of my children. One is in public school, one is home-schooled, and one is in private school.

I believe that "LET'S MOVE" is a start in the right direction, however, the School Systems, Education Administrators, and Teachers need to be included in that program as well.

Posted by: moomoosweetbaby | February 26, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Now this is a motion I want to act on! Healthy bodies lead to strong minds.

Posted by: ChesterWest | February 26, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Great post! Very refreshing to read such a commonsense approach to kids, education and health. A return to the basics!!

Posted by: Angela18 | February 26, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

right, great idea, but somehow, the way things are going, I see teachers getting blamed for childhood obesity on top of everything else.

If good nutrition is taught and modeled in school and still kids get fat - It must be the teachers' fault, right?

Posted by: efavorite | February 26, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Great reading Valerie!

We (parents) created a "healthy lunch" program to assure every child receives a decent lunch. We each donate a certain amount of money each towards the schools "lunch fund." Some parents recently became unemployed and it helps a great deal.

It's really important, especially children at ES levels, are allowed some level of exercise/energy release each day. It worries many of us that sports programs are on the chopping block because of school systemic budget cuts in MS/HS.

Exercise is very important, especially during this time of the year. For the younger children, it's sometimes too cold, or school grounds are too much of a mess and/or safety compromised because of the rain/snow. Add to that lower amount of daylight so children have limited time afterschool to run, play, ride bicycles, etc.

I've seen teachers become very creative in utilizing indoor space/classrooms to assure kids receive some level of energy release.

Posted by: TwoSons | February 26, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

Have you seen Jamie Oliver's TED talk?

Posted by: Fabrisse | February 26, 2010 7:22 PM | Report abuse

Wow, that was an insightful article and I couldn't agree with you more and think that physical, social emotional, as well as mental health should be a serious part of every school curriculum. If we did, we would have far healthier young adults that are well adjusted and prepared to have a postive influence on our society.

Posted by: mevanstank | February 26, 2010 7:30 PM | Report abuse

The number of carolies "consumed" by exercise is enormously over-estimated (for sobering data, see e.g., : So changing diet will have to be the primary means. Physical activity should not thereby excluded from involvement in the weight control and weight loss strategy. Every bit helps, and there are multiple other benefits of physical activity. Multiple steps are needed, both in connection with school and by parents.

Actions are needed to enable more children to walk/bike safely to and from school.

Stand-up desks should be considered.

Recesses, yes, and with encouragement for physical activity rather than standing around would help; intramural sports that involve a lot of activity by each child (look carefully, the established sports do not do so) need to be developed.

At home: limit sharply the time playing video games and non-educational use of the computer and tv.

Chores for kids, from helping clean and straighten up around the house to mowing grass (person powered mower) and racking leaves (using a rack -- no blower).

Family walks, runs and games.

Posted by: jimb | February 26, 2010 10:10 PM | Report abuse

we also need to get rid of obese faculty and staff as well as those who smoke because students will pay more attention if they see what they are taught actually embodied and being practiced by adults around them.

Posted by: george32 | February 27, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Mr Slades' comments are so logical and, one would think, intuitive that I imagine readers without school aged children might have difficulty realizing just how profound these observations are!

As a parent of two – and by no means a diet and exercise fanatic – I’m routinely shocked by the physiques of my children’s schoolmates and reports on what “so-and-so’s mother packed in her lunch today!” School lunches, at $2/meal, stagger the mind both for there content and cost. And like everything in America these days it’s getting politicized. Requesting a healthy meal for you kid starts to feel like an act of civil disobedience.

This is a serious problem in our country which touches not just health and healthcare reform/costs, but also farm policy, food security, and environmental management. I look forward to reading more on this.

Posted by: tniesar | February 27, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

Instead of spending tax dollars on this, why not teach a man to fish and ask that all parents take a nutrition course.

The learning starts at home folks. If parents demand it from their kids, they will make the right choices. If they dont, that should be their prerogative to deal with as they see fit, NOT the school system.

This goes beyond simply changing out food choices in the schools. You need to teach those responsible for their kids since they obviously have never thought about it.

Again, not the school or capitalist systems fault, but rather the parents who refuse to take responsibility for their kids.

If you dont like it, get up 30 mins early and pack them a lunch. Dont impose your lack of involvement on everyone else.

Posted by: indep2 | February 27, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Great article. I couldn't agree more...we need to start using a 'holistic' approach to healthy living that starts with our children -- this issue is not isolated to the USA, it is being felt around the globe.

Posted by: kamarlin | March 1, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

As usual, Valerie, your blog is right on the mark as is your guest. Let's Move is a great start, but as Sean Slade points out it is only a start. It must be followed by policies and practices that recognize that health is not something to address if test scores are high enough, but rather that health is a precursor to high test scores. If you want kids to score well on tests, then make sure they are well fed, clothed, housed, protected, and cared for and their scores will go up!

Posted by: lpoynor1 | March 1, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

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