How Can Health Influence Learning?

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Everyone knows an apple a day keeps the doctor away. But can an apple a day lead to better grades too? 

Well, it might not be quite that simple, but good health and educational achievement are linked.

According to data from the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, school students who had higher test scores were more likely to:

  • eat breakfast every day
  • eat fruit and vegetables every day
  • do at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day
  • play on a sports team
  • get at least 8 hours of sleep each night

They were less likely to:

  • spend several hours each day watching TV or playing video games
  • smoke cigarettes or e-cigarettes or have other issues with drug use
  • binge drink
  • drink large amounts of sugary drinks

The study clearly suggests a link between better health behaviors and better outcomes and academic performance at school.

Don’t forget mental health

So far we’ve been talking about physical health, but mental health and well-being can also impact on learning and academic achievement.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to increased mental health issues among the general population and among students. Statistics from the CDC’s Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey (ABES) conducted during the pandemic found that:

  • more than 1 in 3 students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic
  • female students and students who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, other or questioning (LGBQ) experienced disproportionate levels of poor mental health

Talking about mental health is still something that many people find hard, but with more sports stars like Simone Biles and Michael Phelps and celebrities like Lady Gaga and Kendall Jenner discussing their struggles it is becoming a more open topic. Schools can play an important part in dealing with mental health problems by giving students a safe space to discuss their feelings and regularly checking on students’ well-being with activities like daily emotional check-ins.

How does health specifically impact learning?

Students who have subpar physical or mental health may struggle with:

Focusing in class and making progress — Learners who come to class hungry or sleep-deprived may struggle to concentrate on even simple tasks. As a teacher, you might notice particular times of the day such as mid-afternoon when students are particularly lethargic. Students with low self-esteem or mental health issues often lack the enthusiasm to focus and make progress with their learning.

Physically staying awake during class — You might notice students who are really sleep-deprived struggling to even stay awake in class let alone focus on what they are learning. 

Physical symptoms impacting their studies or attendanceFigures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show more than 2 in 5 children aged between 6 and 17 years old in the United States have a chronic health condition such as diabetes, asthma, or epilepsy and around 1 in 5 suffer from obesity — the prevalence of which has been increasing over the past few years. Data also shows inequalities in these chronic diseases with certain ethnic groups or families with a lower socioeconomic status more likely to suffer from them.

Poor health can also cause lower-level physical problems such as headaches, nausea, low iron levels, catching coughs and colds regularly, or dental issues. These can all impact not only on school performance but also levels of absenteeism.

Developing good relationships with other students in class and with their teachers – Students who are struggling with their health, particularly mental health, may be withdrawn and unwilling to participate or find it hard to develop relationships with their peers. 

Education affects health too

It’s important to ensure child health and well-being because studies show that education is a social determinant of health.

Higher levels of education can lead to better health in the long term and better outcomes for the health of the general population.

Students who stayed in the education system for longer were likely to be healthier because:

  • they could access physically safer roles compared to those in low-income jobs and employment that were more likely to come with health care insurance and other health benefits.
  • they earned more money and could more easily afford basics such as healthy food and extras that benefitted health.
  • they are less likely to live in conditions that increased poor health like overcrowding or poorly heated or ventilated homes.
  • they were more informed about their health status and better placed to ask questions relating to their health when dealing with medical professionals.

A good education also helps students from low-income backgrounds or ethnic groups with higher risk factors to overcome those inequities and improve their health.

Because education affects health, it’s important to give students the best possible chance to become avoid becoming school dropouts and instead become high school graduates and potentially move on to higher education.

How can teachers help to create better health outcomes for students?

Good health starts right from early childhood with nutrition in the first few years of a child’s life key to setting them up for learning and educational attainment. For most students, good health starts at home. Parents and families can do a lot to create healthy habits and routines, from eating right to getting enough sleep.

In the classroom, teachers can use health education to reinforce those choices and provide more opportunities for students to practice healthy living.

Your school may have a health service or health policy which can guide you.

Programs like the CDC’s Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) framework can also help to create partnerships between public health services and schools to develop interventions and create better outcomes in their local area.

Three practical things you can do to help students with their health and wellness

Make time for mental health — If you can, make time in class for students to take a mental health break. This could be as simple as lying on the floor for a few minutes and breathing calmly, or it could be a short yoga routine.

Kami’s Gratitude Journals are another great way to help your students take care of their mental health. Or use our Good, Ok, Bad charts for a quick way to gauge how your students are feeling with a daily emotional check-in.

Get your class moving — Depending on the age of your students they might not move around all that much at recess, or you might not have scheduled physical education lessons. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make time for movement.

Put on some music and get up and dance, or take part in a short exercise routine a few times a day during class. A yoga routine can combine both physical exercise and calming movements.

Encourage healthy eating – How much you can encourage healthy eating in class might depend on your school policies and budgets. If allowed, you might provide some fresh fruit in your classroom for students to snack on, or make sure you have fresh water available for drinking. Your school might be able to provide a breakfast club to offer a healthy start to the day or school lunches.

You can also incorporate classroom activities that explore healthy eating and the importance of choosing the right foods. For young children, introduce healthy foods in a fun way with Kami’s healthy food coloring sheets. Remember, that adolescents might be dealing with body issues or eating disorders so be careful to focus on the nutrition aspects of food rather than weight or dieting.

Health promotion in your class doesn’t have to be difficult or take up too much time. Just a few short sessions each week can make a difference.

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