Comprehensive School Health: A Matter of Life

Comprehensive School Health: A Matter of Life

By John Henry Ledwith | September 27, 2016
Senior Sales Manager, ETR

What’s the true value of a comprehensive school health program? I have a surprisingly simple answer: it’s a matter of life.

 

This came home to me starkly the other day as I sat with a group of people who had been an integral part of my sons’ childhood and teen years. Here were some of their coaches, many of their friends, the parents of their friends. And my boys, too, now young men in their 20s.

 

We had come to honor and remember a friend and former teammate who had taken his own life the previous week. We sat baffled and heartsick as we listened to this young man’s father, reaching out to the people in the room, appealing to us: “Please, do not focus on this one bad decision, this momentary impulse, of my son’s life. Do not let that define who he was and the memories you carry onward. He was so much more than this!”

The Problem with School Health Education

The loss of any young life is a difficult thing. I’m still turning it around in my head. I keep asking myself, “What could have made a difference for this young man?”

If you’ve read any of my earlier posts, you’ll know I am a proud evangelist for health education and ETR’s own program, HealthSmart. I believe in the power of research-informed programs that address the CDC’s six areas of health risk—the specific areas that contribute to the leading causes of death and disability among youth. (These are unintentional injury and violence, sexual behaviors, alcohol and other drug use, tobacco, diet and physical activity.) And I have extraordinary admiration for the heroes I know across this nation who are delivering comprehensive health education programs every day, in classrooms spanning K-12 and beyond.

But this young man’s death has really reinforced for me the sense that too many of our health education efforts are reactive. It’s human nature, I think, to care when something bad happens. “Let’s take care of that,” we say. We are galvanized to action. But reactive programs—what I call the “health education surgical approach”—focus on one topic at hand. Other issues tend to fall by the wayside.

We Are Whole Beings

Humans are not one-dimensional. That’s why I think the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) model is so outstanding. We need to envision our children and teens as whole beings, as essential players in their communities.

We need to address a range of issues that will resonate throughout their lives, including emotional and mental health. We need to work harder to create systems and structures that enhance school connectedness and reinforce every student’s role and place. We need to create and promote systems so that every student can reach out for support when times are challenging. And we need to teach them how to use those systems.

This is how we prepare kids for that adolescent explosion of emotion we call puberty and growing up.

And that’s exactly what comprehensive school health education seeks to do. But there is almost no funding in this country directed to a comprehensive approach. Yes, of course, our existing funding streams support vital efforts in areas such as violence prevention or sexual risk reduction. But educators who want to work from a comprehensive perspective—who want to integrate an entire range of essential skills including decision making, refusal skills, goal setting and more—often end up having to piece together their curricula. A lesson here, a resource there.

I hear it over and over again as I talk with educators all around the country. They are so dedicated! But isn’t it unfair to ask them to step up and do so much extra work? There are fine resources out there that have already set up effective, research-informed scopes and sequences. If only teachers also had the support to acquire and teach them.

Leveraging Community Support

Sexuality education has been a controversial sell in a lot of communities over the years. Opponents are often well organized and highly vocal. However, advocates of comprehensive sex ed discovered some time ago that community support for sexuality education—from parents, voters, and people of varying religious backgrounds—is actually quite high.

Leveraging this support has helped with the implementation of effective programs. Those programs have likely played a role in the dramatic decrease we've seen in teen pregnancies over the past two decades.

Just a few days ago, the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital released its latest National Poll on Children’s Health. They reported some outcomes I was gratified to see:

  • Most parents want schools to teach wellness, drug/alcohol abuse prevention and sex education.
  • Two in three want schools to address emotional/mental health.
  • Three in four want schools to address physical activity, and almost as many want healthy eating covered.

I’m wondering if it’s time for those of us who are supporters of comprehensive school health education to take some tips from the playbook of sex ed advocates. Parents want comprehensive education. Kids deserve it. Let’s get it going!

I cannot say whether a more robust school health education program would have saved the young man I knew. I realize nothing about depression or suicide is that simple. But I can say that I have seen more than one young person redeemed by the ability to reach out for help, along with the good fortune of having someone there to offer support when it was needed.

I hope you’ll join me in doing everything possible to make these options a reality for all of our children.

John Henry Ledwith is ETR’s Senior Sales Manager. He can be reached at jhl@etr.org.

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