Growing Healthy Kids
Schools are jumping on board with Michelle Obama’s campaign to improve child health and nutrition.
If you think that your school is too busy with academics that you can't bother with health and fitness, think again. When kids exercise and eat right, it actually helps improve school performance.
Each day, Donna Cataldo, a fifth-grade teacher at Quincy Elementary School in Boston, has students circle up to do calisthenics in the classroom or takes them to the rooftop playground to run and shoot some hoops.
"It's important for their general health and for their ability to focus to let them burn off energy," says Cataldo, who has taught at the school for 34 years. And it's a vital strategy on important state testing days. "Exercise breaks help kids develop stamina to make it through those long hours," she says. "It improves everybody's frame of mind, and we hope test scores will go up."
Michelle Obama is shining the spotlight on the health of America's kids with her new Let's Move campaign. The First Lady is calling on schools, along with businesses, foundations, and the government, to help reduce childhood obesity within a generation. Today about one in three children and youth ages 2-19 in the United States is overweight or obese. The initiative, launched in February, includes a push for healthier school breakfasts and lunches, as well as promoting physical activity.
But it will take more than pep talks and hula hoops on the White House lawn. In addition to encouraging individual responsibility, school administrators are being asked to improve the environment of schools to make healthy living a natural part of the culture.
Taking the Lead
School administrators are in the position to make a difference. This leadership from the White House, along with growing evidence linking healthy kids to school performance, can help you make the case. Experts say a champion in the main office is critical to making a healthy school environment become a reality.
"Administrators are culture setters and gate keepers," says Jessica Donze Black, national director of the Healthy Schools Program, in Washington, D.C. "They have a great potential for making an extraordinary positive impact or they can hold things up, depending on which approach they take."
When a principal or superintendent embraces healthy school initiatives, it gives time-strapped teachers the permission to integrate nutrition messages and physical activity into the day. Too often, teachers see health needs of kids as an additional expectation for them to address, rather than a complementary thing that that they can do as a part of academics, says Pete Hunt, lead health scientist in the Division of Adolescent and School Health at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
So, once you buy into the value of health promotion in school, what can you as an administrator do?
Look at the Big Picture
Start by taking a good look at your school and come up with a coordinated health school program. The CDC has published guidelines to help schools identify school policies and practices most likely to be effective in promoting lifelong health. "There is more than one way to promote the health of kids in schools," says Hunt. "Oftentimes, if you don't look at the whole, you can miss some opportunities."
Wellness policies at the district and building level may provide flexibility with school menus, vending machine sales, curriculum, and special fitness programs. "School policy is important to set the tone and direction. It's about what the people are doing at the building. Being individually responsible is a lot easier to do when you have collective support," says Hunt.
The 2004 Child Nutrition Reauthorization required school districts to develop wellness policies, and many formed wellness councils. Naming a school-level council can help build a healthy and sustainable wellness environment over the long term, says Donze Black. Teams should meet at least once every two months and include one or two teachers, the food service manager, an administrator (ideally the principal, vice principal or a designee with authority), a parent, and a student. "Kids bring a voice on ways that schools can make a difference that engage students themselves. They know how they can best be reached," says Hunt.
Improve School Meals
Work with your food service provider to get the healthiest options in your cafeteria. "Everybody sees it as a problem, but no one sees it as a priority," says Marilyn Tanner-Blasiar, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and a registered dietician in St. Louis. "Administrators and the school board have a lot of power in school lunch programs."
Not all foods in schools are regulated by the USDA. Hot meals have specific nutrition requirements, but local districts can decide what ala carte items to serve, says Jean Daniel, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Also, about 75-80 percent of foods served in school meals are purchased at the local level. "There is an unfortunate myth that the USDA dumps food. It's absolutely untrue. It is demand driven," says Daniel.
So local administrators can encourage their food service to offer salads every day and use more whole grains, for instance. They can emphasize served plates with a balanced meal over ala carte items, such as cheese fries and chips. Rather than candy and cookies at the checkout, have fruit, carrots, and granola. "Get the fryer out of the school," suggests Tanner-Blasiar. Bake and steam foods instead.
Curb Unhealthy Competitive Food
"Health food does sell very well, you just need to eliminate the not-so-healthy food," says Sue Grunstad, a licensed dietician and public health nutritionist in Williston, North Dakota. "Kids will buy what's available. If you put out good food, they will buy it."
When administrators are looking at food in schools they need to look beyond the cafeteria to consider what's sold in vending machines and through school clubs. By limiting or cutting out competitive food, there may be an initial drop in income, but schools often find that kids come to lunch with more of an appetite and cafeteria sales increase.
It can be a tug-of-war over money, says Donze Black of the Healthy Schools Program. "The battle happens because the revenue streams go into different buckets. Income from meals often goes to the district and vending machine income goes to the building," she says. The best thing a superintendent can do is to rearrange the budget to eliminate this dilemma. Also, don't expect the cafeteria to be revenue generating, says Donze Black. "If food is a revenue-generating thing, it puts food service in an awkward position: Be healthy, but also turn a profit," she says.
For the best response when replacing soda with juice or water, make changes at the beginning of the year or just after the holiday break, experts say. Take small steps and build each year. Encourage clubs to skip bake sales and candy fundraisers and opt for a car wash or selling magazines.
Cut Teacher Treats
Encourage teachers to steer away from using candy or food to show kids they've done a good job. Instead, offer pencils, stickers, or special privileges, such as picking the music for a dance or being the line leader.
Pizza parties to reward kids who made progress at Centreville Elementary School in Centreville, Virginia, left everyone feeling "sluggish," says Principal Dwayne Young. So, they switched to a program where the most-improved student each week takes a walk with the principal through the historical neighborhood around the school. "It's a chance to connect with kids and it's become very popular," says Young.
Birthdays don't have to be all about sweets. Rather than cupcakes, have students make a card for the birthday child or ask everyone to autograph a T-shirt. As schools set up healthy policies, parents have been the big barriers to change, says Donze Black. To get buy-in, invite parents and students in on the discussion to set a birthday treat policy together.
Protect and Expand P.E. and Health
be a cheerleader for physical education in your school. It may have been put on the back burner with pressure to concentrate on academics, but kids need P.E. to develop their bodies and minds, says Francesca Zavacky, senior program manager with the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. "Physical education should be every day," she says. "If not, it's not what we practice in our daily lives."
Schools that offer health education find it reduces risky behavior, says Hunt of the CDC. "Just when kids need to develop skills to avoid risk is the time when schools cut back on health requirements, grades 9-12," he says.
Advocate for Recess and Activity
Teachers know it and research proves it: Recess can improve academic achievement. Kids need time to run around, negotiate on their own, and develop social skills, says Zavacky.
Consider scheduling recess before lunch. "Kids behave better on the playground and eat more leisurely because they are not restless," says Zavacky. "They are more ready to learn upon returning to the classroom and perform better because of increased nutrient intake."
Encourage teachers who are using innovative curriculum to improve health. "The concept that we have to be seated at a desk to learn is antiquated," says Donze Black. "Our brains work better when there is blood flow." As teachers introduce a lesson, let students stand up, stretch, or walk around the classroom. Try the Take 10! program, where kids try activities such as acting out a story as it's being read aloud.
At Carver Lyon Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina, second-grade teacher Stephanie Johnson is helping her kids expand their palate, while at the same time teaching math. She created a bar graph on a whiteboard and kids recorded if they liked a certain fruit or vegetable. But first they had to be exposed. So Johnson had a kick-off celebration to sample various foods. She offered a taste of cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes, grapes, and other foods in her classroom. There was also positive peer pressure as kids noticed others liking certain fruits and vegetables and then wanted to try them. Johnson sees her kids eating healthier in the cafeteria and they are bringing the message home.
Think of ways teachers can take classes outside. Plant a garden and then chart the growth of your produce. Do math problems with chalk on the playground. Take an environmental walk. Teachers at Centreville Elementary School in Centreville, Virginia, are required to teach outdoors at least once a week. "We want kids to look at their own environment and be a part of it," says Principal Young. "It gets them out and moving."
Use a Teacher Wellness Program
consider starting a school wellness program. "Kids get a better education if the staff is healthy," says Hunt.
At South Jefferson Elementary School in Jefferson County, West Virginia, physical education teacher Chris Atkins leads an exercise class in the gym twice a week and once a month organizes an activity, such as rafting or paintball, for staff and their families. Atkins also offered to measure the staff's BMI at the beginning of the year and help them working on lowering it throughout the year.
Tammy Cook, physical education teacher at Cowan Elementary in Letcher County, Kentucky, got a local hospital to donate pedometers for each member of her school's staff. Participation is high in the weekly competition to see who has the most steps. The idea came from her school's wellness committee, with the hopes that it will help teachers role-model healthy behavior to students.
"It's a way to help with stress," Cook says. "It makes it a more comfortable environment to work."