It's Time to Reframe How We Think About Education and Health

May 17, 2016, 10:03 AM, Posted by Kristin Schubert

Kids spend more time at school than anywhere outside their homes, making schools where we have the greatest chance of improving kids' health trajectory through physical, social and emotional development.

My sister, Katy, and I grew up in a family of teachers. My mother, my father and my aunt all dedicated themselves to educating, inspiring, encouraging and supporting each student who came through their classrooms. While I chose to go into public health, Katy followed in their footsteps and is a fifth-grade teacher. Many of her students experience challenges at home that no child should have to face. So in order for her students to be engaged in learning, not only does she need to know her lesson plans, she also needs to know whether a student has eaten breakfast that day or is suffering from trauma that’s gone untreated. When a student acts out, she needs to understand what underlying issues are causing them to behave that way. She’s seen first-hand how difficult it is for her students to learn when many of their needs go unaddressed. And every day, I can see how the work we’re each doing in our respective fields intersects.

As the research shows, your education has far-reaching implications for your health. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to live a longer, healthier life. Now, more than ever, having a high school diploma can predict your likelihood of having diabetes, heart conditions or other diseases. And across racial and ethnic groups, life expectancy improves with increasing years of education.

Despite the strong and well-established connection between health and learning, the health and education sectors often work independently of each other even though we’re often serving the same children, in the same communities, on similar issues. Raising achievement levels in education, preventing dropouts and getting more of our students into college will save lives, prevent diseases and reduce health care costs down the road. And the earlier we start, the better chance we have of making sure all our children develop physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively to the best of their ability.

Students who are healthy, present and engaged, are better learners. Decades of research continues to reinforce this. Teachers, administrators, parents and youth have always known it. Yet, efforts to reduce the disparities in education outcomes have largely focused on increasing the amount of instructional time, teacher preparation practices and educational standards, resulting in little improvement in student achievement. One reason may be that these education-specific approaches do not address health as a learning support.

So how can we work together to give all our children the best chance at a great education that puts them on a path to a healthy life? One opportunity to reframe how we think about education and health is the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child Framework, developed by ASCD, a global leader in education, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This framework places students at the center and surrounds them with five tenets:

  1. Each student enters school healthy and learns about and practices a healthy lifestyle.
  2. Each student learns in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for students and adults.
  3. Each student is actively engaged in learning and is connected to the school and broader community.
  4. Each student has access to personalized learning and is supported by qualified, caring adults.
  5. Each student is challenged academically and prepared for success in college or further study and for employment and participation in a global environment.

It’s a framework that establishes health—physical, social, emotional and cognitive—as foundational to a student’s learning and achievement. And it recognizes that a student’s ability to excel academically is influenced by a range of factors from schools and teachers to families and communities.

We’ve heard these ideas echoed in conversations we’ve had with the education community – talking with teachers, students, school administrators, community leaders and advocates to understand what it will take to make healthy school environments the norm and not the exception. What we learned is that while a healthy school is very much about getting kids active and eating healthy foods, it’s much broader than that. It’s about school buildings and grounds that make kids and staff feel energized and ready to learn. It’s about teachers who support you in class and who serve as healthy examples. It’s about providing the right supports to families so they can help their kids achieve in school. It’s about the community lifting up schools and helping to create environments that promote learning and resilience – inside and outside of school walls.

RWJF has long believed that investing in schools is critical to our work to improve health and well-being. Good schools are the foundation for a Culture of Health. Kids spend more time in school than anywhere outside their homes. It’s where we have the greatest chance of improving their health trajectory by nurturing their physical, social and emotional development.

Teachers like my sister do an amazing job of trying to help their students succeed in life. But they can’t do it alone. What they need is a system of support, especially in our most vulnerable communities. We want to know how would you work differently if you viewed health and education as inextricably linked? What kind of supports would you bring? Who would you start working with, even if their role isn’t as obvious, to emphasize that we all have a role to play to ensure children grow up healthy and strong?

Kristin Schubert, MPH, is a director at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Her role at the Foundation has focused on applying a public health perspective to the health issues faced by vulnerable populations, particularly vulnerable adolescents. Read her full bio.