Collaborating Across Sectors to Grow Healthy Kids

Sep 30, 2015, 1:21 PM, Posted by

Schools are usually considered to be part of a system separate from the health care system, but they play an important role in building a Culture of Health. See how cross-sector collaborations can ensure children strong starts to healthy, productive lives.

A child eats his lunch at school.

At Cincinnati's Oyler School, I watched as a third-grader received a free eye exam and then pored over the selection of eyeglasses, trying on several pairs, eventually settling on a pair of funky blue frames. He shared that he was looking forward to receiving his glasses, which he'd be able to take home for free the following week. The student’s teacher had noticed that he was having trouble seeing the board in their classroom and was empowered to do something about it. By forging partnerships with nonprofits and government agencies, Oyler has created a vision center, health clinic and dental clinic—all within the school.

Oyler has undergone a transformation over the last decade—from a school plagued by increasing poverty and declining enrollment to a school that is boosting graduation rates and helping improve the surrounding community. Oyler ensures students and their families have access to healthy meals by providing kids breakfast, lunch and dinner and sending them home with food on the weekends. It is part of a movement to create "community schools" that address kids' health needs and get them access to resources that allow them to succeed in the classroom and for years to come.

At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we are collaborating with others working to build a culture that values health—promoting, sustaining and safeguarding it—everywhere, for everyone. And schools are central to building this Culture of Health. Second only to children's families, schools shape children’s futures. We've seen the research—promoting social and emotional skills, increasing access to pre-school education, providing access to healthy foods and activities, and forging public-private partnerships to bring services into schools all help children thrive. Oyler is one of many schools across the country that is putting research-driven ideas into action. We need more like it.

Cross-sector collaboration—like the partnerships we're seeing at Oyler—will be crucial to tackling the health and educational challenges that face our students and our schools. Schools also play a critical role in detecting and mitigating the effects of childhood trauma and improving access to nutritious foods and physical activity.

The New Teacher Center (part of the Santa Cruz New Teacher Project) supports new teachers in implementing social emotional programs and practices through mentorship and skills-building.

The Importance of Social and Emotional Learning

To prepare kids for a healthy future, we must help them develop strong social and emotional skills. A 20-year retrospective study, funded by RWJF and published in the July 2015 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, found that kindergarteners' social skills were linked to outcomes—both positive and negative—two decades later in early adulthood. Kindergarteners who share, cooperate, or help other kids are more likely to go to college and have a full-time job. In contrast, students with weaker social competency skills are more likely to drop out of high school, abuse drugs and alcohol, and need government assistance.

The children most likely to struggle socially and emotionally are those who have experienced violence, abuse, or other traumatic events in their early years. Children who suffer from early trauma often exhibit particular social traits that reflect their inner turmoil. Educators can give kids the building blocks they need to thrive by promoting social competency skills and through the early detection and intervention of adverse childhood experiences—when there is still time to mitigate or reverse the effects of this trauma. With the right interventions, students can improve their social and emotional learning, leading to better academic performance, higher graduation and college attendance rates, and better mental and physical health. By taking a comprehensive approach to the whole child, we can help improve the odds.

Preventing Childhood Obesity

We must also collaborate to help make the healthy choice the easy choice for children and their families. Recent studies have shown progress toward reversing the childhood obesity epidemic, but the statistics remain alarming—more than one-third of young people in the U.S. are overweight or obese, increasing their risk for diabetes and other health problems. Progress in reducing racial, ethnic and economic disparities in obesity rates has been limited. African-American and Latino youth continue to have higher obesity rates than their white peers, even in most of the areas that have reported overall progress.

The places that are reporting declines in childhood obesity have taken their own unique approaches. Through programs and policy changes, schools and districts across the nation have transformed their campuses into healthier places for kids and worked with their communities to improve access to nutritious foods and safe places to be active. Schools in Kearney, Neb., have emphasized physical activity―they have P.E. almost every day, and teachers lead students in short physical activity breaks during class. A school district in Wisconsin has started serving healthier meals and has given reusable water bottles to every student to encourage them to drink more water. Changes like these are essential to making sure all children―no matter who they are or where they live―can grow up at a healthy weight.

Putting Research into Action

We see signs of progress, but we need your help putting this research and these examples into action across the country. We are interested in funding innovative approaches that will shed light on conditions that foster a Culture of Health.

I hope you'll share your feedback and ideas in the comments below. How can philanthropy facilitate collaborative action? What practices, programs and partnerships are working in your communities?

Building a Culture of Health will take unprecedented collaboration. Everyone—policymakers, educators, parents, neighbors, civic leaders, and businesses—has a role to play. The education and health sectors must join forces to ensure that today's youth will go on to lead healthy, productive lives.

Alonzo L. Plough, PhD, MPH, is vice president, Research-Evaluation-Learning and chief science officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.