A Systems Approach to Integrating Health in Education

A systems approach is needed to better align the health and education sectors in order to address the needs of the whole child.

The Issue

Students who are healthy, present, and engaged learn better. At the same time, those with more education tend to live longer, healthier, and more productive lives. In short, the relationship between health and education is reciprocal: higher education has been found to improve health, and better health supports learning. But despite these connections the education and health sectors have largely worked separately.

Key Findings

  • A systems approach is needed to better integrate health and education.

  • There are many policy avenues for doing so, including the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act at the federal level, as well as myriad state policies.

  • The Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child model can help build a shared framework for health and education leaders.

  • To build a true systems approach, we will need to confront challenges and opportunities related to operations, quality, and implementation.


Infusing a Culture of Health into the education system that is supportive of the whole child will require both the broad view of the systems involved, paired with a strategic focus on important paths forward. A systems perspective allows us to better understand the larger context in which specific policies, processes and practices are seeded, and identify the supports needed to ensure the seeds flourish.

About Cairn Guidance

RWJF commissioned Cairn Guidance to produce this discussion paper to inform work focused on the intersection of health and education. Cairn Guidance works as a content expert in health to help organizations further their mission and strategic plan. For more information, visit http://www.cairnguidance.com/.