25 Changes Schools Are Making to Improve Student Health

Health Improvements for Schools

Steve Debenport/istockphoto

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Health Improvements for Schools
Steve Debenport/istockphoto


School routines are returning after summer's end, but schools are shaking things up to improve student health. From the lunchroom to the gym and from the classroom to the hallways, schools are making small improvements that can have a big impact on a child's well-being. We took a look at some of the changes over the past couple of years.



It takes all of five minutes, but that is all the folks behind Mindful Classrooms are looking for. James Butler, a health specialist for the Austin Independent School District in Texas, notes that simple yoga-style breathing exercises helped him as a volunteer teacher in Namibia. After tests back in the United States, he's exported it to classrooms throughout the country to help kids focus and stay calm in stressful situations. "The routine and consistency of breathing daily was incredibly helpful for my kindergarten students," he says. "It also helped me as a person and as a teacher as I was faced with personal struggles of my own."

Phone Bans


While not exactly new, phone bans are hotly debated heading into the year. France has outright banned them for now, and Canada's Ontario province is considering it after a Toronto school did so last year. A study by the London School of Economics and Political Science showed bans reap the same benefits as extending the school year by five days. Various U.S. schools have implemented similar bans, though some parents continue to advocate for phones so they can keep in touch with children during an emergency.

Longer School Days


In 2009, there were 650 schools using what the National Education Association calls Extended Learning Time. By 2016, their number had increased to 1,500. It's costly to keep staff on for those hours and some worry about how much school kids can take, but adding another 90 minutes of activities ranging from engineering to martial arts is proven good for academics. Competitive South Korea, Singapore, Japan, and China have considerably longer school days than the United States while The Center for American Progress has lobbied for a longer school day just to sync up with parents' schedules.

Longer School Years


In some states, such as Oregon, the school year falls below the standard 180 days, and even at the standard some say too much is lost during summer breaks. "The only ones who don't lose are the upper 10 to 15 percent of the student body," says Charles Ballinger, of the National Association for Year-Round School in San Diego. "Those tend to be gifted, college-bound, they're natural learners who will learn wherever they are." While approaches differ — some want to add 20 to 30 more days, while others want to stretch 180 days more evenly across a year-round calendar — the goal is to help kids retain more knowledge long-term.

School Before or After Labor Day


In some places, it's blasphemy, but lots of school districts across the country start well before Labor Day, arguing that late starts hurt knowledge retention and students who need free school lunch. Virginia, Michigan, Maryland and Minnesota have rules on the books prohibiting a pre-Labor Day start — arguing that it hurts tourism and doesn't give kids enough of a break, and legislators in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Ohio are pushing for those post-Labor Day starts.

Healthier Vending Machines


Don't cheer this one just yet. Back in 2013, the Department of Agriculture ruled that schools couldn't just load up vending machines with junk food, and it limited snack calories to 200. That was likely overdue, as it was estimated more than a decade ago 75 percent of drinks and 85 percent of snacks sold in school vending machines was of poor nutritional value. The National Institute of Health says foods sold in school vending machines affect students' long-term dietary decisions, but a University of Illinois study suggests that a broader approach is needed to keep kids from just sprinting toward fast food or convenience stores on breaks. "There may be unintended effects if you only make small-scale changes," said Daniel Taber, the study's lead author.

Healthy Lunches


If child obesity isn't motivation enough to change school meals and snacks, maybe academic performance is. A study out of the University of California, Berkeley, says changing from in-house school lunches to healthier fare from a vendor raised test scores. It cost $222 per student — still less than the nearly $1,400 it cost Tennessee to reduce class size for the same results. "When school boards are going out and contracting with these vendors, what they're thinking is that they're going to improve the health of the students, that they'll get them to eat healthier. I don't think they're thinking of it as a tool to actually improve academic performance, [but] we found that it is," said Michael L. Anderson, one of the study's authors.

Farm To School


Some districts do it only a week at a time, but farm-to-school eating is growing. The National Farm to School Network, launched in 2007 to bring more locally grown foods into schools, is amid a three-year push to help schools afford the switch, and has 42,587 schools signed up in 46 states — 42 percent of U.S. schools. While early attempts at introducing farm-grown foods drew mixed results, kids are still more likely to eat those foods once served them regularly.

School Gardens


You don't have to look all that far to find examples of school gardening programs. But what kind of value do kids get out of them? Other than getting outside and active, kids learn where their food comes from, its nutritional value, the cost of producing it, and the problem-solving skills that develop when running a fickle garden. The folks at Real School Gardens say they've found that 94 percent of teachers report that students are more engaged after working in gardens, and standardized test proficiency increased 4 to 5 percent.

Later Starts


Ninety-three percent of U.S. high schools and 83 percent of middle schools start before 8:30 a.m. despite experts including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreeing schools should start later to allow students the sleep they need — eight to 10 hours a day for kids age 13 through 17, according to The American Academy of Sleep Medicine. There is a movement afoot to start school later, and schools in 45 states are giving it a shot.

Better Phys Ed


As the CDC pointed out in 2009, less than 20 percent of kids took part in 60 minutes or more of physical activity daily, and about one in four doesn't get that much activity on any day of the week. Nine studies have found students falling well short of the moderate to vigorous physical activity recommended — because physical activity boosts brain function — for at least half a physical education class. But innovative phys ed teachers are bringing rock climbing, bowling, yoga, volleyball, table tennis, and even spin classes into the gymnasium.

More Recess


Recess has been on the wane for years as schools have emphasized standardized testing. But multiple states have begun mandating at least 20 minutes of recess as researchers began reasserting its merits. As it stands, 20 minutes is about one-third the physical activity the American Association of Pediatrics says kids need every day. Even the Council on Physical Education for Children and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education says physical education is no substitute for recess. Arizona, meanwhile, is expanding recess as experts from the American Heart Association to wellness groups espouse the effects of free play on better academic performance and overall behavior.

Mental Health Services


One out of seven U.S. children age 2 to 8 have diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorders, suggests the CDC, with children age 3 through 17 increasingly diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (6.8 percent), behavioral or conduct problems (3.5 percent), anxiety (3 percent), depression (2.1 percent), autism spectrum disorder (1.1 percent), and Tourette syndrome (0.2 percent among children age 6 to 17). School-based care is becoming more common as students, educators, administrators, social workers, and even state legislators increase their focus on mental health.

Fidget Spaces


The National Institutes of Health have found that children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder who get more intense physical activity have better focus in the classroom. While the study's authors recommended follow-up research, their work has already led to a call for more yoga bands, exercise balls, squeeze balls, swivel and wobble chairs, standing desks, or even stationary bikes to let kids fidget without making them a distraction.

School Vaccinations


The 2017-18 flu season was rough, with the CDC reporting 176 flu-related deaths of children through June 30 — a record for a single flu season — with 80 percent occurring in children who didn't get flu vaccinations. Meanwhile, 93 people from 19 states were reported with measles as of June 16, and there were 17,972 reported cases of whooping cough in 2016. These are all easily preventable diseases, with CDC immunization schedules, and the National Conference of State Legislatures notes that states are tightening up vaccination exemptions and doing more to protect the general population from outbreaks.

More School Nurses


Pre-diabetes and diabetes increased from 9 percent in 1999 to 23 percent in 2008 among students ages 12 to 19, says the National Association of School Nurses, and 32 percent of children ages 2 to 19 are obese. More than 10 million children suffer from asthma. Food allergies among children younger than 18 increased 19 percent between 1997 to 2007. Overall, 15 to 18 percent of children and adolescents have a chronic health condition. Adding nurses can help: The association recommends a 1-to-750 nurse-to-student ratio — and 1-to-125 where there's complex health care needs — and the CDC agrees: Schools get back $2.20 in lower absenteeism and managed chronic health for every $1 invested in school nurses.

Suicide Prevention


Suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between age 10 and 24, resulting in approximately 4,600 lives lost annually, and the suicide rate among those ages 15 to 19 has grown steadily since the mid-2000s, with just about every state seeing an uptick. As a result, schools in Iowa, Alabama, and Texas are among those increasing their suicide-prevention efforts this year.

More Accessibility
Less Asbestos


If your local school was built before the 1980s, it likely contains asbestos. That's more than 130,000 schools nationwide with asbestos in ceiling tiles, vinyl flooring, wallboard, duct work, and pipe wrap insulation. Kept in good condition, it isn't an issue. But if there are construction, flooding, or other complications — as seen in Michigan, Colorado, Louisiana, and New Jersey — it can grow into an acute hazard. That's why removal continues to be an annual chore for school districts in every corner of the country, even as the White House attempts to expand asbestos use.

Less Lead


Again, if your school is old enough, there is likely lead in some of its base coats of paint or even in its piping. Undisturbed, it's fine. But increasingly, schools struggle to renovate while keeping this hazard under wraps. Any building built or painted before 1978 will likely have these issues, and addressing them can be costly. Whether it's keeping lead out of the water that students drink or out of the spaces where they congregate, schools continue to clean up a previous generation's mess.

Bolder Playgrounds


The movement to round the edges and soften the surfaces of school playgrounds goes on, though not without some resistance. Nations including Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Canada, and Sweden are adding more adventurous elements to school playgrounds to promote activity and brain function, and U.S. counterparts are starting to reconsider more challenges for kids playgrounds as well. What jungle gyms were to kids of the '50s to early '80s, ropes courses will be to a new generation.

Ergonomic Classrooms


Designers have ideas for building the better school desk, but it's ultimately up to school districts to embrace advances that can create more comfortable environments for students. Some are looking at exercise balls and pedal desks to aid with fidgeting, and flexible and properly positioned seating that can lead not only to better posture and overall health, but more engaged students.

Biking and Walking Incentives


Walk to School Day started in 1997, expanding into a Walk and Bike to School Day that's really a reminder kids should walk or pedal as often as they can. A decade ago, fewer than 15 percent of kids walked or rode a bike to school But programs such as the Safe Routes to School partnership and Walking School Bus are getting schools and parents in Texas, Washington, Nebraska, California, and elsewhere to create safe paths to school and a more educated generation of walkers and bikers. Considering fears raised by the topic, schools and advocates have a long road ahead.

Walking Programs


The dearth of childhood physical activity explains why kids are wearing pedometers: School walking programs are substituting for the activity kids aren't getting elsewhere. Kids strap on pedometers, count steps, and, sometimes with the National Football League's help, join walking clubs in which everybody gets their steps in.

Hand Washing Sinks


The CDC can't tell you enough to wash your hands, calling the practice "a do-it-yourself vaccine." It cuts the risk of respiratory infections by 16 percent, and alcohol gel hand sanitizer in classrooms gets credit for reducing absenteeism due to infection by 19.8 percent among 16 elementary schools and 6,000 students. It can be difficult to get kids in the habit, so in Montana, an elementary school has moved sinks outside restrooms so teachers can make sure students wash properly — an idea under consideration in Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Oregon, and elsewhere.