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School-Based Health and Wellness

Parents, caregivers, community leaders and public officials agree that the primary role of schools is to build skills and knowledge to prepare young people to live their lives creatively and engage in meaningful employment in an ever-changing world. Although the primary function of schools should be to focus on educational outcomes, learning is directly affected by students’ health status. There is substantial evidence that poor health affects educational outcomes, behaviors and attitudes, and that the achievement of positive educational goals is closely linked to the achievement of good health.

Health behaviors, the most important predictors of current and future health status, are influenced by a variety of factors. In order to establish healthy behaviors, young people need to have an awareness and knowledge of health issues, the skills necessary to practice healthy behaviors, opportunities to practice healthy behaviors, and support and reinforcement for the practice of healthy behaviors.

Because health behaviors are learned, they can be shaped and changed. Partnerships among family members, community leaders, teachers and school leaders are a vital key to the initial development and maintenance of children’s healthy behaviors and can also play a role in the modification of unhealthy behaviors. Schools, perhaps more than any other single agency in our society, have the opportunity to influence factors that shape young people’s future health and productivity.

Reaching Students Where They Are

Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, once stated that schools are “the only public institution that can reach nearly all youth and are, therefore, in a unique position to improve both the education and the health status of young people throughout the nation.” Koplan further urged public health and education officials to work in partnership with schools and communities to support efforts to implement effective school health programs. Schools can be cost-effective sites for health promotion interventions directed toward improving the health of children and adolescents, but should not be looked upon to solve health and social problems in isolation from other forms of public health.

It is the school’s role to work with students, parents and the community to organize the curriculum, provide a healthy learning environment, and support the health of students, faculty and staff. The effectiveness and sustainability of school health interventions are dependent on the extent to which health promotion interventions are linked to the primary business of schools—developing the educational skills and knowledge base of young people. Effective school health promotion should be comprehensive in concept and content, adequately funded, and involve development of school policies and practices that strengthen health teaching in the curriculum. Strong connections with parents and health services are necessary, along with creation of a supportive physical and psychosocial environment. Schools also provide a potential setting through which effective action can be taken to reduce inequities in health status.

Health-promoting schools must work with the ways students develop, grow and change physically, cognitively and socially from year to year. As physical motor skills, social experience and cognitive capabilities increase, students’ needs change as well. Schools must ensure that health education curricula, physical activities, health services, nutritional programs, counseling and social services, and efforts to provide a safe learning environment are tailored to meet the varying needs of students at each grade level.

Partnering with Families

Most families, regardless of their economic or social status, have high aspirations for their children. Inviting families to be part of the educational process is empowering and can invigorate the school’s offerings. School and community leaders need to work with families to develop programs that effectively build on family strengths and integrate and nurture their aspirations. Engaging families in discussions regarding their hopes and dreams for their children is the first step in identifying and building on these dreams.

Fostering a Safe Learning Environment

All children have the right to learn and school personnel have the right to work in a safe, healthy, caring and respectful environment. The school’s role in providing a safe environment goes beyond installing metal detectors and making efforts to eliminate weapons and fights. Safe and health promoting school environments are the result of broad-based community support, careful planning and a commitment by school and community leaders.

Multiple factors must be addressed to result in the school environment being safe and free from violence, coercion, emotional abuse, harassment and bullying. School leaders who accept the challenge of developing a safe and healthy learning environment will help to improve academic achievement and ensure their students’ future as caring, respectful adults who are tolerant of differences and can resolve conflict in peaceful ways.

Healthy Students Are More Successful

A coordinated approach to school-based health and wellness recognizes that healthy students are better able to learn, and that healthy, well-educated students will make for healthier communities in the future. A growing body of evidence links school health programs with increased attendance, improved academic performance, prosocial behavior, healthy physical activity and nutrition practices, and a decrease in behaviors that result in injuries, substance use, HIV, STD and unintended pregnancies. By systematically strengthening the components of a coordinated school health program, schools can expect their students to achieve both better health and a better education.

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