Healthier Students Are Better Learners

The US National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health provide a brief description of child growth and development in ages 6-12 years. These early years are indeed crucial. Motor skills as well as coordination between senses, motion and body are just beginning to be refined. Connections in the brain are being made at this time. The children are growing and so are their interactions with others. The elementary years plus kindergarten therefore require special attention to the health conditions of the child. Charles E. Basch of the Teachers' College at Columbia University produced the following paper supporting the idea that health care (not just health education) is fundamental to basic education:

To read this paper, visit http://www.equitycampaign.org/i/a/document/12557_equitymattersvol6_web03082010.pdf
The above paper starts with the following argument:
No matter how well teachers are prepared to teach, no matter what accountability measures are put in place, no matter what governing structures are established for schools, educational progress will be profoundly limited if students are not motivated and able to learn. Health-related problems play a major role in limiting the motivation and ability to learn of urban minority youth, and interventions to address those problems can improve educational as well as health outcomes. Healthier students are better learners. Recent research in fields ranging from neurosciences and child development to epidemiology and public health provide compelling evidence for the causal role that educationally relevant health disparities play in the educational achievement gap that plagues urban minority youth. This is why reducing these health disparities must be a fundamental part of school reform.
Indeed, with pressing needs and limited resources, where should a public school system begin? Teachers need just salaries. Schools need classrooms. Classrooms require learning materials. With health, there are also questions of which conditions are more important, which situations should be addressed first. Basch, in his paper, provided seven key priority health issues:

  • Vision
  • Asthma
  • Teen pregnancy
  • Aggression and violence
  • Physical activity
  • Breakfast
  • Hyperactivity 

The reasons why the above are chosen to be of high priority should be clear. Not addressing any one of the above is a huge obstacle to learning. All of the above can affect the engagement of a child in school. Asthma, for example, is very debilitating, and, of course, poor vision leads to poor reading and sensory perception. Hunger due to no breakfast leaves a child with no energy to participate inside the classroom. Teen pregnancy is problematic in secondary education. Bullying and violence prevent a well-being climate inside the school. All of the above do have serious consequences in school.

Addressing the above health conditions can be daunting and schools (or the government) may be quick to say that these are simply outside their capability or budget. The point is, other expenses on learning will go to waste if most of these health problems are not solved. There is no point in spending money for books for a child who can not read them because of vision impairment. A student cannot overcome these problems by simply working harder. There are ways now known and are practiced in so many schools around the world that alleviate these conditions. Asthma can be controlled if the air quality inside classrooms is maintained. No unsafe school can really serve as a good place for learning. Children need to feel secure inside their schools so that a focus on studies can be achieved. Breakfast is unique compared to the other meals during the day. Breakfast comes after a long night sleep and what a child eats in the morning affects the brain in a significant way. The lack of breakfast exacts a great toll on a child's brain capacity. Students spend a great fraction of their daily lives in a school. The school is where both the community and the government become the parents of these children. The paper, "Healthier Students Are Better Learners" by Charles E. Basch examines in detail each of the seven health issues, dissecting published papers and surveys, demonstrating how prevalent these conditions are. With regard to education, how each of these health issues affect learning is also described in detail. Lastly, solutions or recommendations for each one are also provided based on practices that are known to work.

Designing curricula, providing white boards - all of these will fail without paying attention to the health of children. More importantly, health care is not just an avenue for better basic education - health care is a right on its own. Thus, Basch ends his paper with the following paragraph:
Even if health factors had no effect on educational outcomes, they clearly influence the quality of life for youth and their ability to contribute and live productively in a democratic society. These are worthy goals for elementary and secondary education. Indeed, pursuing these goals is a moral imperative.





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