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Helping All Children Succeed in School!

December 10, 2011

Help our Children Lead and Learn, courtesy of IStockPhoto

Want to Boost Learning, Start with Emotional Health, a commentary written by Jane Issacs Lowe, appeared in the December 7th edition of Education Week.  She drew a connection between improved learning in the classroom and the emotional and physical well-being of children.  With increases in the number of children living in poverty and childhood obesity, she believes that schools are at the intersection of these societal challenges and the future well-being of our children. Since children spend nearly 18% of their waking hours in school (see calculation below), we know that school plays a big part during the formative years.  However, the ability of schools to have a positive impact on the future of children is greatly impacted by the significant challenges society places on children and families.  As Ms. Lowe points out, in the face of economic challenges schools are left with fewer resources to address the social and emotional problems students bring to school that impact their learning.

Time in school = 180 days/yr x 13 yrs x 8 hrs/day = 18, 720 hrs

Time in life (waking hours) = 18 yrs x 356 days/yrs x 16 hrs/day = 102.528 hrs

Percent of time in school (K-12) = 18% of one’s life in school during first 18 years of life.

Here are some startling statistics about poverty, obesity, and other health related issues that young people face.

  • Nearly 15 million children in the United States – 21% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level – $22,050 a year for a family of four. (National Center for Childhood Poverty)
  • Between 16 and 33 percent of children and adolescents are obese.  Obesity is among the easiest medical conditions to recognize but most difficult to treat. (Child and Adolescent Psychiatry)
  • The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that at least 2.5 percent of children under the age of 18 (1.8 million children) are severely depressed.
  • In 2009, approximately 3.3 million child abuse reports and allegations were made involving an estimated 6 million children.  (National Child Abuse Statistics)
  • 1 in 50 children in America is homeless. (Time Magazine)

Ms. Lowe writes:

Academic success isn’t just about instruction: It’s about safe campuses, good nutrition, and mental and physical health.

So in the face of the grim statistics, it is clear that schools have major challenges to face every day in order to help students get ready to learn.  The research tells us that learning is facilitated when students feel safe and nurtured by their schools, families, and communities.  The statistics I share would suggest that at least 1 out of 4 children is not coming to school feeling secure enough to learn.

In one of my recent blog posts, School Reform: A complex issue in the face of poverty, I discuss the challenges we face in the area of school reform as it relates to poverty.  I also reference another blog post of mine, Factors Leading to Success in School, that offers a schematic (see below) to illustrate all the factors that can impact a student’s success in school.  Most of these are shared by Ms. Lowe in her commentary.

Factors Leading to Success in School

The November 2011 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, Poverty and Learning: Giving Students the Support They Need to Climb out of Poverty, has a series of articles that address many of the challenges that Ms. Lowe addresses in her commentary.  Pedro Noguera’s article, A Broader and Bolder Approach, was particularly insightful, summarizing the challenges that must be addressed if we are to break the cycle of poverty through education.

But these challenges will not be met by our society if we continuously elect politicians on both sides of the aisle who are more interested in playing politics with the lives of our children.  We currently lack the political leadership in Congress to change the landscape so that the expenditure of our precious resources are targeted at alleviating the pressures placed on families to meet basic needs.  If families were supported by our society as a result of more fair and equitable distribution of resources, we might be able to lift the 15 million children out of poverty, help their family situations improve, and improve their chances to succeed in school.

Health Living, courtesy of IStockPhoto

In the same edition of Education Week, December 7, there was another article, Congress Thwarts Plans to Shape Up School Meals, that illustrates the point I am trying to raise.  We know what a good nutritious meal looks like.  There is ample research to indicate that a good nutritious meal needs the proper balance of protein, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and vitamins.  It must contain high-quality grains, fresh vegetables, fruits, and low sodium.  The following guidelines from the Executive Summary were reported by the US Department of Agriculture in 2010.

• Enjoy your food, but eat less.
• Avoid oversized portions.
• Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
• Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.
• Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals – and choose the foods with lower numbers.
• Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

In spite of the extensive knowledge we have to help Americans, especially our children, eat proper meals, we still neglect to use and leverage the knowledge to create proper nutrition programs in our schools.

Congress last month added clauses to the agriculture appropriations bill that keep the USDA from limiting how many servings of starchy vegetables, including white potatoes, students are allowed each week. (page 24, Ed Week article by Nirvi Shah)

The bill also allows for small amounts of tomato paste added to pizza to be considered a serving of vegetables.  Really!  Tomato paste counts as a vegetable, since when.  Scientifically speaking, a tomato is a fruit.  Wow, are politicians really that confused about the nturition they regulate through the political process?  Yes, they are.

President Obama signed the Healthy Hungar-Free Kids Act that authorizes funding for federal school meal and nutrition programs to increase availability of healthy foods for low-income children.  So why is this federal legislation not dictating more directly how we feed our children in school.  Here is the reason as reported by Ms. Shah:

A spokeswoman for the USDA said the end product will be less ambitious because Congress bowed to food companies and specific industries instead of listening to experts on health and nutrition.  While it’s unfortunate that some members of Congress continue to put special interests ahead of the health of America’s children…

So it is more important to protect the potato industry that supplies potatoes for french fries, an extremely unhealthy food that contributes to childhood obesity (high fat and high sodium).  The American Frozen Food Industry, whose members supply frozen pizzas to schools, lobby on behalf of counting tomato paste as a vegetable.  It should be pointed out that the grains used in pizza dough and pasta served in schools are very low in nutritional value.  But we’ll count the tomato paste as a vegetable so we don’t have to include fresh vegetables on the menu.  So why does Congress actively work to keep french fries and pizza on lunch menus?  The reason is because they are more interested in the money they receive from corporate lobbyists and other special interests than in the health of American children.  If they were interested in the health of children their actions would be supported by the research and programs supported by the USDA.

So we come full circle.  While the diagram below is somewhat over simplified, I do think it illustrates the point that Ms. Lowe is making in her commentary.  We have to address the problems we know negatively impact student learning, such as poor health care, poor nutrition, poverty, and homelessness.

Poor Nutrition's Effects on Student Learning

Unless we elect politicians who put children first as represented by their actions and deeds, we don’t have much hope in changing the political landscape that will improve our schools’ chances to help children escape the chains of poverty.   We know what to do to solve these problems, but we lack the leadership to get us there.  All Americans need to educate themselves on these issues and write their legislators to advocate on behalf of children not on behalf of special interests.

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