Building Healthy, Safe, and Nurturing Schools

Sep 8, 2015, 4:44 PM, Posted by Jennifer Ng'andu

Promoting good health for kids early in life and in their learning environments can provide all children with the foundation they need to achieve their potential—now and throughout their lifetimes.

My aunt, a teacher in Connecticut, likes to say that her students carry more into their classrooms than just their backpacks. As some 50 million students enter the classrooms of our nation’s public elementary, middle and high schools this month for a new year of learning and growth, it’s important to remember that schools are more than places of academic achievement. They’re also key community institutions that influence the health and wellbeing of our nation’s children.

We already know that schools are important places to promote kids’ health. That’s why, for nearly a decade, RWJF has worked to improve food choices and increase physical activity in schools nationwide. Through our longtime support of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program—which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary—we have helped students in nearly 30,000 schools eat better and move more. This is important because research shows that health has an impact on kids’ academic and lifelong success.

But schools also teach kids social and emotional skills like sharing, cooperating, and engaging positively with each other and with adults. These are critical skills—a recent study shows that kids with better social emotional skills are more likely to graduate from college and secure good-paying jobs later in life. The opposite holds true as well. Kids with weaker social skills are more likely to drop out of high school, abuse drugs and alcohol or spend time in jail.

Combined with the robust research linking physical activity with better education outcomes, these findings reaffirm that schools are not just for teaching math or science. They are primary hubs of learning for children, introducing them to experiences and cultures that shape their lifelong perspectives and values.

On our recent First Friday Google+ Hangout, we explored how schools can support children’s physical, mental and cognitive health. The panel featured Michael Halpert, principal of Balsz Elementary School in Arizona, and Marc Brackett, director of the Yale University Center for Emotional Intelligence.

Brackett noted that how kids feel emotionally while they’re at school matters a lot to how they learn—and to their entire school experience, in fact. Emotions drive their capacity to pay attention and to how they form and conduct their relationships; emotions also impact decision-making and judgment, mental and physical health, and everyday effectiveness. Fortunately, kids can be taught to manage their emotions.

This requires schools to take a holistic approach. According to Halpert, that approach begins the moment students walk through the door.

Balsz Elementary participates in both the Healthy Schools Program and in Playworks, a program that provides safe, healthy, and inclusive play at school to promote social and emotional development. Students start the school day with a healthy breakfast and a 15-minute walk. At recess, Playworks coaches lead games that not only get kids moving but also teach them skills like communication, problem-solving, and self-control. There’s also a Boys and Girls Club program at the school.

Building a healthy school environment takes work, but resources are available. The Center for Health and Health Care in Schools and CASEL have developed an action guide and a financial sustainability toolkit for administrators and educators who want to bring social and emotional learning into their schools. In addition, the Healthy Schools Program offers customizable action plans for integrating healthy eating and physical activity programs and practices.

Health is multi-dimensional: it is at once physical, social, and emotional. By promoting good health for kids early in life and integrating a holistic approach to health into their learning environments, we can provide all children with the foundation they need to achieve their potential—now and throughout their lifetimes.

Jennifer Ng’andu is a program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focusing on eliminating some of the most potent threats to a Culture of Health for children, their families, and communities. Read her full bio.