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New Report Identifies Policy Opportunities to Build Healthier Schools

One major challenge to achieving a higher baseline of student health across U.S. schools? According to advocates, it’s that federal and state policymakers respond to particular moments of public crisis by passing narrow and targeted measures rather than considering the whole child.

For instance, the childhood obesity epidemic and growing recognition of the importance of school-based nutrition led Congress to pass the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act in 2010. Or consider how, in response to growing public concern around bullying and increasing rates of youth suicide in the 2010s, all 50 states and the District of Columbia had passed specific anti-bullying legislation by 2015. 

While advocates applaud these measures as important steps toward youth health, they also see an opportunity to design a more comprehensive, unified, and effective system for improving youth health outcomes. 

Rather than addressing each health concern as a discrete challenge, they say, interventions must acknowledge how different aspects of young people’s health––physical, emotional, mental, and social––impact a young person’s experiences and ability to learn. 

“There’s always a pressing issue that needs to be addressed. Often, it’s the crisis moment that a policy will focus on,” said Deborah Temkin, senior program director of education at Child Trends, a partner of America’s Promise Alliance and co-grantee on the Together for Healthy and Successful Schools initiative, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. 

“But it’s only when we look at the whole child and assess what their needs are that we can really accomplish the underlying goal of all of these programs––to improve their outcomes,” she added.

In 2014, the CDC published their Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) model, a framework that promotes a collaborative, inclusive, youth-centered approach to improving health and academic outcomes for young people. The model positions young people amidst a support system of schools, teachers, health professionals, families, and communities to meet a variety of student needs and ensure that every young person is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.

whole child model
The Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child model, developed by the CDC and ASCD.

Taking their cue from the WSCC model, Temkin and researchers at Child Trends published a report, “Creating Policies to Support Healthy Schools: Policymaker, Educator, and Student Perspectives,” that explores strategic opportunities to implement WSCC approaches at the policy level. 

Through interviews and focus groups with policymakers (state board of education members and legislators), educators (administrators, teachers, school health professionals) and young people themselves, researchers assessed unmet health needs and policy opportunities to promote a more holistic policy framework for school health. 

Here are three strategies that the report recommends for advocates to promote stronger school health policies:

Build Coordination Across Issue Areas

Rather than approach issues from an ad hoc perspective, as policy has done historically, the report emphasizes that advocates can increase coordination across different aspects of student health and raise awareness of how different issues impact each other. 

For instance, students interviewed in the report highlighted the connection between mental health challenges and binge eating. 

“I really believe one of the biggest problems America is having with teenagers is obesity… Yes, the lack of physical activity is a problem. But I really think that stress-eating and depression and things like that, all really add up to a bigger problem than just the physical aspect of it… Going back to that emotional support, if you have that emotional support, you’re more likely to have a life full of happiness,” said one young person interviewed.

By emphasizing the interconnectedness of health areas, advocates can build a unified message around school health that addresses students’ experiences more fully, the report suggests.  

Identify and Capitalize on “Leverage Points”

All stakeholder groups discussed aspects of mental health and school climate and culture as key areas for improvement. Since mental health and school climate intersect with other aspects of healthy schools (including supportive relationships, physical nutrition, and school safety), researchers identified these topics as “leverage points” for promoting the WSCC model and achieving healthier schools more broadly. 

Advocates can strategically “identify where folks are seeing the gaps, and to use those as entry points into seeing these issues more concretely,” Temkin said. 

“It’s only when we look at the whole child and assess what their needs are that we can really accomplish the underlying goal of all of these programs––to improve their outcomes.”

Since state legislatures have limited funds to address school health, different health issues often compete for policymakers’ attention and resources. Leveraging priority issues to build broader messaging around health can help advocates address a wide range of health concerns, rather than pitting them against each other.  

Tailor Messaging to Match Different Stakeholders’ Priorities

Although all stakeholder groups agreed that mental health and school climate were significant school health concerns, each group approached the issue differently. 

For instance, while policymakers focused on higher-level concerns about adverse childhood experiences, educators discussed particular forms of trauma that young people experience, and young people themselves concentrated more on the need for supportive relationships with adults and the stigma associated with mental health. 

“The way that different stakeholders talk about issues vary,” said Temkin. “Even though different stakeholders are talking about largely similar topics, we need to tailor our messaging to the particular audience.” 

To build buy-in across these different constituencies, the report recommends that advocates adopt language and goals to fit each particular group. 

Together for Healthy and Successful Schools is a collaborative initiative working to advance the vision that all schools support education and health. Together for Healthy and Successful Schools is comprised of America’s Promise Alliance, Child Trends, and Healthy Equity Works at Washington University in St. Louis, and is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Learn more about the Every School Healthy campaign 

To inspire greater action to make healthy schools the norm and not the exception, America’s Promise Alliance and its partners are telling the stories of the challenges facing schools and communities, highlighting solutions that advance healthy schools, and amplifying the voices of young people who are making their schools and communities healthier. Learn more at EverySchoolHealthy.org. To join the conversation on Twitter, use #EverySchoolHealthy.