Now is a great time to revisit the research behind health and learning and to renew our commitment to providing a healthy school environment for all students. Schools play an important role in promoting the health and safety of young people and helping them establish lifelong healthy behaviors.1 A healthy school environment — full of nutritious school meals, physical activity, access to water and a positive climate — sets students up for success in the classroom and beyond. Our work stems from the core belief that healthy students are better learners and all students — regardless of race or socioeconomic background — deserve a healthy school environment that supports their well-being and builds a foundation for learning.
Studies validate what teachers, parents and education leaders know: healthy students are more likely to attend school and are better able to focus in class, which ultimately leads to higher test scores and overall higher classroom achievement. When children do not have enough to eat, they are more likely to struggle academically, be suspended from school and have difficulty getting along with other children.2 Studies show that students with better nutrition have better attention spans, better class participation and higher test scores. In some cases, improved nutrition even reduced behavioral problems.3
Breakfast in particular has a strong link to educational outcomes—even more so than other meals—because of the way the brain responds to food after the short fast during sleep. An extensive body of research documents the ways that breakfast consumption positively impacts students’ cognitive functioning, focus, attention and emotional well-being. Breakfast is also shown to increase student attendance rates and decrease discipline problems, meaning students and teachers have more time in class to focus on education.4
Another strong connection between health and academic achievement is in the area of physical activity. Physical activity breaks during classroom instruction have been shown to improve concentration, classroom conduct and test scores. A study published in Neuroscience found kids had more accurate responses on standardized tests when they were tested after moderate exercise compared to being tested after 20 minutes of sitting still. Research results lend support to the idea that just a small amount of exercise before class helps boost kids’ learning skills and attention spans.5
Finally an enduring positive school climate and culture are essential conditions to promote student achievement. Studies show a significant difference in student achievement between schools with a good school climate and those with a poor student climate. In other words if students do not feel safe or welcome at school and are not treated with respect they will not meet their academic potential or learn positive social lessons. 6
We know that education leads to better jobs and higher incomes. However, research also shows that better-educated individuals live longer, healthier lives than those with less education, and their children are more likely to thrive.7 We’re asking you to join us in making schools healthier places to learn. If you’re a teacher, you can incorporate small physical activity breaks in your classroom. If you’re a parent, you can work to improve the quality of the school food at your local school. It you’re an administrator you can promote a positive school climate. Let’s all agree to start this school year off in a healthy way!
Download this PowerPoint presentation (PDF) that can be used as a resource to help make the connection between health and academic achievement.