Educators have realized that in order for children to succeed academically, they must be healthy. Initially, the concept of “health” was centered on physical health.
However, over the last 100+ years, the definition of health has expanded considerably. It has grown from a strictly physical definition to include psychological and spiritual components as well. In some circles, this is referred to as holistic education.
“Rather than being concerned with basic knowledge and skills acquisition, holistic educators are primarily concerned with the overall development (physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual) of the individual” (Rudge, 2010, p. 11).
How can Health Influence Learning?
The understanding in the U.S. that students need to be physically healthy in order to learn can be traced to early school lunch programs. In 1853, Children’s Aid initiated the first free school lunch program in New York City.
Philadelphia became the first major city in the U.S. to implement a similar program in 1894. Finally, in 1946, President Truman signed the National School Lunch Act.
A body that receives appropriate nutrition functions better. But perhaps more importantly,nutrition also affects the brain. When children enter the school day properly nourished, they are more alert, have better control over their attentional focus, have improved memory and overall cognitive processing abilities.
All of this makes learning much easier and amore pleasant experience. However, “proper nutrition” can be a difficult goal to achieve. Children are tempted with all kinds of sugary unhealthy foods with slick, corporate-driven marketing campaigns specifically targeting them as consumers.
2. Physical Exercise
A healthy body means a healthy mind. Unfortunately, children these days are easily enthralled with sedentary activities. Smartphones, video games, and an endless stream of online entertainment options means that children today are less active than ever before.
This lack of physical exercise can have detrimental effects on school performance. There have been numerous studies documenting the significant relationship between physical exercise and academic performance.
For instance, Trudeau and Shephard (2008) found “…a significant relationship between physical activity and academic performance indicating that academicperformance is improved with increasing physical activity” (as cited in Kayani et al., 2018, p. 2).
Physical exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which then facilitates neural development and overall mental functioning.
3. Sleep and Memory
There are many benefits to a good night’s sleep. In addition to waking up in a better mood and feeling fully alert and ready to start a busy day, sleep also improves memory.
But not just any sleep will do. There are particular stages of sleep that are the most important. For example, the deep sleep stage is particularly important to improving memory. This is the stage of sleep in which the brain is least active.
While in the deep sleep stage, memories are consolidated and stored in long-term memory. The brain prepares itself to form new memories the next day.
So, if children do not get enough sleep, it can disrupt their learning. Not only will they be less attentive and alert, but their brain will simply not be prepared to store new information.
In addition, not getting enough sleep can put kids in a bad mood, and no one is very receptive to learning when feeling grumpy. For these reasons, some school districts are trying to start the school day later, so that students can spend more time sleeping before beginning a full day of academics.
4.Social and Emotional Development
Social and emotional development refers to children’s ability to form healthy social relationships. Emotional development refers to the child’s ability to recognize, manage and express their own emotions and respond appropriately to the emotions of others.
That’s a lot work. But it is extremely important that children develop social and emotional skills to be successful in school, and life. These abilities are often referred to as emotional intelligence, which was popularized in the 1995 book by Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.
A typical school day can involve experience many frustrations and encountering tension-filled social interactions. Being able to handle those types of situations is a skilled that can be developed over time. However, for children that have difficulty, it can severely hamper their academic performance.
When a student is feeling sad or discouraged due to an unpleasant social situation, it is very difficult for them to concentrate on what classroom instruction. Their mind is just absorbed with other matters, so material presented in class just simply isn’t processed.
5. Poor Hygiene
Hygiene refers to practices and habits that maintain health and a clean environment. Examples of proper hygiene include: brushing and flossing after every meal, washing hands, keeping one’s face covered when coughing and sneezing, and proper waste and sewage disposal.
When children fail to practice proper hygiene, it makes them more susceptible to disease and illness. While teaching and maintaining good hygiene practices may seem like the responsibilities of parents, this is not entirely realistic.
If a student is too ill to attend school, then their academic performance will suffer. In addition, of a student is ill, attends classes, but fails to practice proper hygiene at school, this can lead to other students becoming ill and missing school.
Therefore, hygiene has a significant effect on learning. In fact, in some cases, a single student with poor hygiene may create health issues with several other students, or even an entire school.
There is a very good reason that schools require students to be properly immunized before being admitted. There are many highly contagious diseases that can pass from student to student with a simple touch or sneeze. Before you know it, an entire school has to be shut down temporarily.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies several shots that every child should have. These include the DTaP series (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, or whooping cough), chicken pox, polio, and the MMR series (measles, mumps, and rubella).
Shutting down a school is a serious matter. It means children cannot learn at their normal pace and can result in significant declines in performance on standardized tests.
This might seem not so horrible compared to the possibility of being hospitalized. However, a student that performs poorly on the SAT or ACT may have difficulty being admitted to the university they deserve to attend.
It’s hard to concentrate in class if you are having trouble breathing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 6 million children in the U.S. have asthma.
Asthma can have serious effects on academic performance. It can affect a child’s ability to concentrate, participate in school activities, socialize, and lead to absenteeism.
According to Howard Taras, M.D., Acting Chief of Community Pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine, “Children with asthma are conceivably at risk for decreased school functioning due to acute aggravations of the disease, increased absenteeism secondary to symptoms, and effects of asthma medication”(UCSan Diego, 2006).
8. Food Insecurity
Food insecurity is defined as having limited access to food due to lack of money or resources. In 2020, 10.5% of households in the U.S. struggled with attaining sufficient food supplies at some point during the year (Coleman-Jensen et al., 2021).
“There is pretty solid evidence that children who are hungry are not able to focus, so they have a low attention span, behavioral issues, discipline issues in the school,” said Sibylle Kranz, an associate professor of kinesiology and a registered dietitian nutritionist in the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education (UVA Today, 2018).
Fortunately, food insecurity is an issue that can be addressed effectively through the implementation of food programs at school. It requires the will of educators and policy makers to allocate the appropriate resources. The benefits are well-worth the effort.
Diabetes is a serious medical condition that affects children as well as adults. According to a report by the CDC, the rate of type I and type II diabetes in children has been increasing every year.
In addition to serious health consequences, diabetes can also affect school performance. For example, Dr. Howard Taras, a foremost expert in childhood diseases, states that most studies demonstratean association between poor cognitive functioning and early onset of diabetes in children under 5
“Some children with diabetes are more likely to be at an academic disadvantage because of early onset diabetes and severe fluctuations in sugar control, sometimes leading to seizures”(UCSan Diego, 2006).
Poor cognitive functioning can include the inability to concentrate, commit facts to memory, or reduce reading comprehension. It can also alter students’ mood states, increasing irritability and likelihood of feeling frustrated with school assignments.
10. Sleep and Mood
Lack of sleep, or lack of quality sleep, can have a direct effect on mood. Students that enter the school day feeling tired and irritable are far less likely to be interested in classroom instruction.
In addition, negative mood states can lead to disruptive behavior. Children will not only show less motivation to follow instructions, but the incidence of social conflicts with other students will increase.
Any teacher can tell you that when two students have a sudden outburst in class, the entire lesson can be disrupted. This not only creates a learning issue with the two students directly involved in the conflict, but the academic performance of all other students in the class is also disturbed.
Academic performance can be affected by an incredibly wide array of factors and conditions. In addition to the innate intellectual capacity of a student, their performance in the classroom can also be hindered by physical, emotional, social, and health-related factors.
Researchers have identified the relation between physical exercise and blood flow to the brain, which then affects a multitude of cognitive processes.
Lack of proper nutrition and food insecurity has been linked directly to poor academic performance and disruptive behavior.
Children that sufferfrom chronic diseases such as diabetes or asthma also suffer. Their health condition can lead to increased absenteeism and difficulties concentrating on classroom instruction.
Furthermore, children that lack social and emotional skills can lose motivation due to their inability to handle frustration. They may also experience social conflicts because of poor emotional self-regulation or emotional intelligence.
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Coleman-Jensen, A., Rabbitt, M. P., Gregory, C. A., & Singh, A. (2021). Household food security in the United States in 2020(ERR-298). Retrieved from Washington, D.C.:https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/102076/err-298.pdf?v=2635.4
Greenberg, M., Domitrovich, C., Weissberg, R., & Durlak, J. (2017). Social and emotional learning as a public health approach to education. Future of Children, 27, 13-32. https://doi.org/10.1353/foc.2017.0001
Hoxworth, L. (2018, January 4). Brain food: Exploring the connections between nutrition and learning. UVA Today. https://news.virginia.edu/content/brain-food-exploring-connections-between-nutrition-and-learning
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Rudge, L.T. (2010). Holistic Education: An Analysis of its Pedagogical Application. London: SAGE.
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Trudeau, F., & Shephard, R. J. (2008). Physical education, school physical activity, school sports and academic performance. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 5, 10. https://doi.org/10.1186/1479-5868-5-10 UCSan Diego. (2006, April 7). Health how health affects a child’s school performance. Newsroom. https://health.ucsd.edu/news/2006/Pages/04_07_Taras.aspx