From Our Team
Posted on August 10, 2015 by Dr. Michael Kelly
From my days as an elementary school student, I recall the teacher’s counsel to eat a nutritious breakfast before a big test. Therefore, I can testify that at least as far back as the 1970s some teachers knew that nutrition was important for academic performance. Even today, my children are encouraged to eat a well-balanced breakfast before standardized tests. Likewise, conventional wisdom holds that kids of all ages need to burn-off energy during the school day and not simply sit still in their desk. I think teachers and parents alike can list many benefits of integrating nutritious meals and physical activity into a child’s school day. Dr. Leah Wighman of the Paso del Norte Institute for Healthy Living adds, “Schools have a big role to play with healthy eating and active lifestyles – many children consume half of their daily calories while at school and spend over half of their waking hours in school.”
Well-fed, healthy students learn better – even if there is not a test. While families are responsible for much of a student’s health, schools do play a role in child health. Students who eat nutritious meals help schools to meet educational goals, decrease absenteeism, reduce behavioral problems, and improve test scores.
Time spent in recess positively affects students’ cognitive performance and classroom behaviors. Not only is recess an important way to add physical activity to a child’s day, it also gives them a break from concentrated learning in the classroom, which is necessary for the brain to process the information, and it allows children unstructured social time during which they develop communication and cooperation skills with their peers. All elementary students, not just the littlest ones, benefit from recess.
Sometimes students must be in a classroom for a long time, such as when there is block scheduling. When this is the case, giving students brief classroom physical activity breaks leads to improved cognitive performance, classroom behavior, and educational outcomes.
One of the best ways parents can promote student health is by having their child participate in the school lunch program. Research shows that, overall, school lunches provide more nutritional value than many sack lunches and off-campus meals. I know school lunch is not gourmet; but try finding another lunch in town that includes an entrée, 4 servings of fruits and vegetables, and a beverage, for $2.10 or less. Parents also can choose to replace junk-food fundraisers and the after-school PTA candy store with moneymaking events that promote physical activity, such as races, jumping balloon events, and field days.
High school principals can implement a 100% closed campus policy or a graduated closed campus policy. A closed campus helps to reduce exposure to higher-cost fast food while providing an incentive for kids to eat the USDA regulated school lunch, which is affordable and packed with nutrients. Students who never leave campus are also less likely to be absent in the afternoon and avoid some high-risk activity. I know there are challenges with scheduling, cafeteria size, and other barriers; nevertheless, closed campus policies can benefit student health and, thus, the campus, district, and community.
School districts can establish an Office of Health and Wellness that provides professional development for health and PE instructors, oversees health/PE policies and instruction, offers leadership for a robust school health advisory council, leads staff wellness programs, and coordinates with nutrition, counseling, school facilities, and other services that impact student health. District leaders can locate new schools so that kids can walk safely or ride a bike to school. Barriers, such as chain-linked fences and the carpool river, can be removed so that kids can arrive safely at school by non-motorized transport. Districts can also examine and modify policies so that children can access sports fields and playgrounds outside of school hours.
Healthy students learn better and are more successful. The entire community benefits from student success, both today and in the future. We all have a role to play in promoting student health. Do your part.
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