A cough can keep a kid home from class. A vision impairment can make it hard to read the board. A lack of physical activity can make them fidgety.
The ways that student health impact students’ ability to learn in class begin small. But according to a new report from a state-run research organization, those small struggles add up. And in low-income communities, they can create real barriers to student learning.
Education Commission of the States was founded by states to research and consult on key education trends. Its new report, "Health barriers to learning and the education opportunity gap," compiles data from a variety of sources, including national health surveys, research into the link between student health and academic achievement, and influential policies governing school-based health practices.
Chief among the health problems that can impact classrooms are learning disabilities. According to the report, cases of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are more likely in the poorest households, with nearly 12% of 3- to 17-year-olds in households making less than $35,000 a year having been diagnosed with ADHD. Among families making more than $100,000, the rate is just 8.8%. It’s also more common in single-parent households than those with two parents.
Among minority communities, the report also found lower rates of physical activity among female students, and higher rates of health concerns like asthma and visual impairment.
The research indicates that those health concerns can have real impacts on learning and performance. According to its authors, academic reforms are key to improving schools, but with most reforms focused on low-income schools, addressing widespread health concerns can improve the success of those efforts.
Some schools have begun to tackle these issues already. For example, Academy 360, a charter school based in Denver, has made student wellness a key tool for improving students’ academic performance. The school, based in one of Denver's poorest neighborhoods, provides free lunch, extra physical education, and recess. The school works with families to instill healthy practices. At the district-level, Denver has also begun to launch family health clinics, where students and their families can receive free or discounted healthcare at their school.
For officials looking to follow a similar path or to simply begin addressing the links between wellness and academic performance, the report from ECS has three key tips:
Be strategic. The authors lay out eight issues that should make it to the top of every policymaker’s list: vision problems, asthma, teen pregnancy, aggression and violence, lack of physical activity, hunger, inattention and hyperactivity, and dental problems. The report recommends figuring out which play the largest role in your school or district and addressing those first.
Follow the evidence. There are plenty of nice-sounding initiatives that, when studied, are shown to have absolutely no impact on student health or academic performance. The report recommends using established lists of proven programs, such as the ACSD’s Whole Child School Model or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s youth initiatives.
Coordinate and collaborate. There are a number of players in the health and wellness arena. That’s good news for school officials, since they won’t have to reinvent the wheel. But it also means that getting everyone to work together on an established set of priorities can be challenging. ECS recommends investing funds in having a point person for each school or district whose responsibility is to make sure established priorities are being addressed and resources are being allocated responsibly. The authors point to Tennessee as an example of how that investment can pay off, as school-based wellness coordinators in that city have brought in $140 million in grants for wellness initiatives.
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