Editor’s note: National Rural Health Day is Nov. 21, 2019. Throughout the month, we are sharing stories to highlight the challenges and good work being done to improve health care in rural America. This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of the DTC Connection.
To guide students to healthier lives, Tennessee educators are taking advantage of the latest technology and innovations, such as under-the-desk cycles and apps designed to get kids moving while they learn math, science and more.
The state of Tennessee adopted in 2000 the Coordinated School Health initiative, an approach designed to connect health with learning. The program improves children’s health and their capacity to learn through the support of families, communities and the schools working together. CSH also involves the schools’ staff, and provides workout equipment and staff fitness classes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the success of America’s youth is strongly linked with their health. Health-related factors like hunger, physical and emotional abuse, and chronic illness can lead to poor school performance.
“Statistics have shown a connection between physical activity and academics,” says Bonnie Patterson, the CSH initiative coordinator for Cannon County Schools.
In some cases, the initiative has saved lives and helped with early detection of medical conditions, says Kim Maynard, coordinator of the initiative for Smith County Schools.
At one school, a teacher who learned life-saving techniques through CPR classes performed the Heimlich maneuver on a choking child. The CPR class is part of the CSH initiative. Diabetes and other serious medical conditions have been detected through some of the health screenings. “When you see the direct effects, it makes it all worthwhile,” Maynard says.
Connected To Health
The schools take advantage of technology, using various apps to monitor data such as the number of miles walked by a student. “Kids relate to technology, and it’s hard to motivate them to want to exercise, so we use technology to get them more involved,” Patterson says.
Several schools use one of the more popular apps, GoNoodle, available for large classroom smart boards and as apps on devices like phones or tablets. GoNoodle’s game-like approach has students up and moving while practicing math, spelling and vocabulary. Some teachers consider it a game-changer.
With so many students utilizing devices for class work and homework, GoNoodle addresses the issue of screen time, working with it and not against it, Patterson says. The program is not only improving the health of the students but also increasing academic performance. “We look at the child as a whole,” Maynard says.
The overall health of students makes a difference in how well they learn, and being unhealthy affects students in different ways, says Elise Driver, the program coordinator for DeKalb County Schools. If children cannot see or hear properly, they cannot learn. Or if children are hungry, they are not able to concentrate on the lesson during class.
“If a child is not physically active and not allowed to move during the school day, we see how that, in turn, causes them to act out or lose concentration,” Driver says.
Coordinating the many parts of school health into a systematic approach can enable schools to eliminate gaps, reduce redundancies across the many initiatives and funding streams, and build partnerships and teamwork among school health and education professionals. Grants also are available for many of the initiative’s programs.
“Each child has to be physically and emotionally healthy before they can excel academically,” Patterson says.
While the goals are similar, each school’s educators determine what works best for their students.
There’s also a difference in the focus for elementary and high school students, says Chuck Whitlock, CSH coordinator for Wilson County Schools. In Watertown, part of the Wilson County system, the emphasis for younger students is physical activities and nutrition. For older students, educators focus on mental health and bullying prevention.
“The issues might vary from one school to another,” Whitlock says. “That’s the beauty of this program. It gives educators the tools to serve our kids in the ways it’s needed most.”
Some schools use unique methods to get students to try new foods, and others use cooking classes to focus on nutritional meals. “We made our own curriculum to cover all the important aspects of cooking and nutrition,” Driver says.
The CSH program purchased more than 200 active seats, designed to allow continuous small movements of students using stability balls, ergo seats, wobble stools or under-the-desk cycles. “This allows the release of excess energy and improves focus in the learning environment while also increasing physical activity,” Driver says.
In Smith County, a countywide field day keeps students active. “The kids that are involved in these activities aren’t just the athletes at the schools,” Maynard says. “We focus on getting the students moving and involved, regardless of their skill level.”
A small percentage of students regularly go hungry. “The meals provided at school are their main source of food,” Driver says.
Several school systems operate a backpack program supported through donations and grants. In most cases, CSH partners with school personnel, students, businesses, churches and civic organizations.
“We send nonperishable food bags with each participant every Friday,” Driver says. “And when funding allows, we send more home on breaks and long weekends.”
In Smith County, the dietary department partnered with CSH to provide free breakfast for every student. Each school has some type of annual health screening to monitor factors such as blood pressure, vision and hearing. Also, the physical education departments strive to obtain heights and weights. This information is provided to the state to track the overall overweight and obesity rates for students statewide.
Overall, the CSH initiative is making a difference in the lives of students.
“It is extremely important, especially in this day of technology, that we continue not only to push physical activity in our school system but also to make being active and healthy a priority to these students for the rest of their lives,” Driver says.