For parents, being told the dangers of childhood obesity is nothing new. After being declared an “epidemic” by the U.S. surgeon general in 2001, schools began to try and do their part to reduce the staggering statistics that indicated that roughly one in three children/adolescents was overweight, and nearly one in five was obese. Vending machines that sold soda were removed from schools, recess and physical education classes, which had been in danger of being eliminated from the school day, got a makeover, and birthday treats evolved from cupcakes to stickers. And while these choices can certainly help students to lead healthier lifestyles, nutrition is only one important aspect of the more holistic picture that is student wellness. Colloquially, the terms “health” and “wellness” are often used interchangeably, but the nuanced differences between them provide important distinctions for educators. Health refers simply to a physical body being free from diseases, but wellness is an overall balance of an individual’s physical, social, emotional, intellectual, mental and environmental well-being.

The benefits of programs in schools that support and promote student wellness are innumerable. At a high level, healthy students are better learners and help to build stronger communities. By understanding that not only is each facet of overall well-being deeply interconnected, but learning how to create and maintain healthy habits in each area of their lives, students are better prepared to handle the stressors that come from being a developing adolescent (which range from bullying to anxiety to depression to violence to addiction). It is imperative that school districts understand their ability to influence healthy choices and build solid lifelong habits as children and adolescents spend the vast majority of their time in or around a classroom. Almost all students eat a minimum of one meal a day at school and many eat both breakfast and lunch (not to mention snacks). In addition, between physical education classes and recess (plus after-school sports), students may be getting almost all of their physical activity at school.

In many districts, the easiest first step in developing a wellness initiative is through the most tangible aspects of wellness – nutrition and physical activity. Young students especially tend to be more prone to picky eating habits and impulsive food choices, making it all the more necessary to provide healthy options at meal and snack times and to include a focus on nutrition in classrooms. When teaching nutrition, we’ve found that one of the easiest places to start is with the concept of “food as fuel”, working through the biology of how our bodies break down food and transform it into energy. From there, units like what a healthy diet looks like and why it’s important can easily be added. The USDA also has some great resources for activities and games about nutrition that are based on the most recent set of dietary guidelines and recommendations, which vary depending on the student’s age. In addition, discussions about nutrition go hand in hand with teaching a healthy body image and a positive relationship with food. In an excerpt from Body Image: A Handbook of Science, Practice, and Prevention, the author explains that as early as age 6, girls are starting to express concerns about their weight and shape and that they’re aware of how to diet to lose weight. It serves as a sobering reminder that it’s never too early to start talking about health and wellness with students.

Of course, healthy eating is just one aspect of taking care of your body and dovetails with a child’s physical needs. For many districts, however, finding effective ways to implement physical activity is one of the most challenging aspects of student wellness. In a recent interview with The School Superintendents Association, John J. Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and internationally recognized expert in neuropsychiatry explains ”Most educators think that physical education is really just about teaching people how to do sports. It isn’t about Friday Night Lights, but about getting all the kids as fit as possible.” Ratey goes on to say “It’s the kids who are uncoordinated or overweight, who aren’t on any kind of exercise trajectory, who get the most help with a fitness-based physical education program.” Making the mental shift from focusing on athletic skills to effort is an important element of helping traditionally “unathletic” kids to find ways of being active that they enjoy.

Essentially, a time to be active is a major component to student success. Ratey states “exercise helps increase our ability to regulate our emotions and improves neuroplasticity, which means it improves the environment for our brain cells to grow. So with exercise, we see an improvement in the ability of students to regulate their emotions, a decrease in discipline problems, an increase in participation, an increase in attendance and a subsequent increase in grades, test scores and success in the classroom.” In most districts, the most natural time to allocate to exercise is recess. At one point, however, recess appeared to be at risk of disappearing altogether due to the increased pressure on schools to teach to a common core that would boost test-scores. In Ratey’s option, however, the move was counterintuitive: “At a time when the importance of STEM is being emphasized, administrators should note that the more fit a person is, the better they’re going to be able to do in math and science. This has been shown over and over again.”

The tide has slowly shifted back in favor of kid’s favorite time of the day, though. In a study conducted by Stanford, research showed that a high-quality recess program can help students feel more engaged, safer and positive about the school day. In addition, outside of the measurable classroom benefits, a study performed by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that recess is a critical time to develop social skills, such as conflict resolution, teamwork, and competition – all things that help students grow into functional members to society. In fact, in many schools, the evidence of recess benefits has prompted administrations to move away from withholding recess as a punishment. Here in Minnesota, the state legislature is considering a bill which would prohibit schools from being able to do so altogether. If the bill passes, we will join 11 other states with similar prohibitions. Despite the overwhelming evidence that taking the time to “get their wiggles out” helps kids learn more effectively throughout the day, the bill has remained unpopular with teachers for whom recess is already a challenge. Many teachers have reported that the transition period to come back to class after recess is the absolute hardest part of the day and can take students up to an hour to readjust. This has prompted some experts in the field to begin to explore recommendations for an even longer recess break, as opposed to the traditional 20-30 minute break that is currently recommended by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While that break is still valuable, some argue that allowing children a full hour for recess would make the time the most beneficial.

Of course, mental and emotional wellness are the final components of overall student wellness, one that is often the most intangible and difficult to grasp by the very nature of its being. In a recent AASA article on The Academic/Mental Health Connection, school administrators Eric Rossen and Katherine C. Cowan explain: “One in five students will have a diagnosable mental health disorder at some point during their school-age years that significantly impacts their ability to be successful. Moreover, that 20 percent does not include the mental health needs of students who do not have a diagnosable disorder.” These statistics indicate the overwhelming need for schools to incorporate programs to raise awareness of the issue. As Rossen and Cowen go on to say, “We know that students under stress, whether chronic or acute, have more difficulty focusing, assimilating information, staying on task and controlling behavior. These risk factors can reverberate throughout a school system in the form of academic and behavior problems and a poorer perception of school climate and safety.” In many cases, these stressors can be better managed when the student is already taking care of themselves from a dietary and exercise perspective – the impact of physical activity on mental wellbeing is well documented. They are also, however, capable of overturning the benefits of those programs and should be taught as independent topics.

With the understanding that all elements of wellness – chiefly, mental, physical and emotional health – are intrinsically intertwined, there are some school districts who have begun to take alternative approaches to promoting wellness, such as introducing school gardens. Based on research provided by the Western Growers Foundation’s Collective School Garden Network, school gardens provide a unique way for students to holistically approach wellness – growing their own healthy food helps to support units on nutrition, while the actual act of gardening provides a time for physical activity and mental reflection. They also introduce an element of environmental stewardship and the importance of sustainability – both important lessons in our growing world. Other districts have found that teaching and practicing yoga in the classroom has led to similar results – with its combined focus on physical and mental wellbeing, yoga provides students with an activity that they can enjoy and benefit from throughout their lifetimes.   

Wondering how you can introduce wellness into your classroom? The CDC has some great recommendations for teachers to promote wellness in the classroom, including:

Focus on Water

Make sure that drinking fountains are easily accessible to your students and let parents know that it’s okay for students to have water bottles at their desks. If students do bring water from home, be sure to stress that it should be plain water, only. Staying well hydrated is just as important for students as it adults – not only does it improve cognitive function, but it also gets kids in the habit of drinking water over super sugary (not to mention calorie laden) sodas and juices. We also know that drinking water can help regulate weight and maintain healthy bodily functions – things that individuals of all ages can benefit from. And while younger students don’t need to drink quite as much water in a day as an adult, they still probably need more than you think. The current recommendation for daily fluid intake is:

  • 5 glasses for 5 to 8 year olds
  • 7 glasses for 9 to12 year olds
  • 8 to 10 glasses for 13+ years

Promote Healthy Rewards

According to a recent study, children are at risk of associating food with emotions and feelings of accomplishment when food is used in the classroom as a reward. This reinforces the practice of eating outside of meal or snack times and encourages students to eat treats even when they are not hungry. This practice may create lifetime habits of rewarding or comforting oneself with unhealthy eating, habits that are particularly hard to break. Instead of offering candy or food coupons as a reward for good behavior, steer towards non-food rewards like stickers and extra time at recess.

Be A Healthy Role Model

When your students see you making healthy choices (reaching for an apple instead of a cookie for a snack, drinking water, taking stretch breaks), they’re more likely to mimic your behavior – intentionally or not. By taking an active part in your school’s wellness initiatives, be that championing healthy food options at snack time or organizing a 5k walk, you’re able to show students the benefits of healthy decisions in action.

Teach Nutrition and Physical Wellness as Part of a Health-Based Curriculum

Teach students about healthy eating and physical activity recommendations.

  • Encourage students to participate in 60 minutes or more of physical activity every day, consume a healthy diet based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and reduce sedentary screen time (e.g., television, video games, computer usage).
  • Encourage students to identify their own healthy behaviors and set personal goals for improvement.
  • Incorporate health education into other subjects such as math and science.
  • Extend healthy lessons outside of school by assigning homework for families to complete together.
  • Meet with the school nurse to promote consistent health messages in your classroom. Consider asking the school nurse, or other health services staff, to lead a specific health lesson.

Get Moving!

As was previously explored in this article, students who are physically active tend to have better grades, school attendance, cognitive performance (e.g., memory), and classroom behaviors (e.g., on-task behavior). Suggestions for creating a physically active classroom include:

  • Incorporating movement into academic lessons or adding short bursts of activity (5-20 minutes) to regularly planned break times.
  • Reading a book aloud while students walk at a moderate pace around the room, and then asking students to identify the verbs or action words in the book by acting them out through physical activity.
  • Taking students for a walk indoors or outdoors as part of a science lesson.
  • Including content about fitness, movement skills and the importance of physical activity as part of math, science or writing lesson plans.
  • Working with the physical education teacher to get ideas, information, and resources to help students stay physically active throughout the school day.

Important note: as important as it is to include physical activity throughout the day, be sure to never turn it into a punishment. By using physical activity as a punishment, it may cause children to develop negative feelings towards it.