An All-Hands Approach to Implementing Schoolwide Change in Wellness

Principal Wendy Ellen Starwalt has transformed her school of over 400 students to get more active and healthy through a grassroots approach that swept up students, parents, and teachers alike. At the core of her approach to instilling that level of change at Carey Busey Elementary in Northern Illinois, and providing a positive model for her school’s district, was an approach that involved 5 key components:

1. Leadership: Principal Starwalt knew that it was important for her to set the tone for the teachers at her school, and help them set as a group the priorities for student wellness going forward. She recognized that teachers feel pressure to have their students perform academically, so she led the way in letting everyone know that it was okay to spend time on activity breaks, and that it was important not to take away recess from wiggly children. Principal Starwalt also helped teachers identify free resources at the outset, and then took the lead in investing grant resources in fitness trackers, student prep kitchens, and other healthy investments that could be integrated into the school’s wellness program and other teaching subject areas.

2. Policies & Practices: Principal Starwalt found that, the secret to changing mindsets and perspectives of the teachers and parents was to showcase the kids’ enthusiasm to “win over the adults.” From changing the way birthday cupcakes were distributed (from 2-3x a week to 1x a month), to moving away from taking away recess from kids as punishment, Principal Starwalt’s approach was to test-drive creative initiatives herself, and let the children’s positive feedback provide teachers with assurance that such approaches would work, while also getting into the ears of parents through their kids about how excited they were about these school wellness initiatives.

3. Programs: Principal Starwalt also recognized that in order to have the new policies succeed and to keep the teachers motivated, she needed to provide them with the tools and ideas to implement those policies. One example was the conundrum of what to do with kids during indoor recess on the frequent inclement weather days in Northern Illinois. She created “Indoor Recess Tubs”, which were essentially indoor resource kits that the teachers and students could circulate during indoor recess sessions that encouraged movement and creativity, rather than sitting at their desks and working on coloring sheets. And although her school’s wellness program initially relied on free resources, Principal Starwalt was able to access grant resources such as the NFL Play 60 $4,000 grant for physical activity and nutrition to expand the wellness programming that the school could offer to the kids.

4. Events: From her school’s Muscle & Mind Project (essentially, a full-day of exploring how literacy or math ties into physical activity), to the winter Family Fitness Challenge, Principal Starwalt has kept her school’s calendar full of health & wellness activities. These events helped underscore the message that students’ health is a priority, and they served as constant ways to bring the school community together to achieve common goals. With success comes more success, and as the school’s initiatives began receiving press coverage and recognition from the school district, the teachers and parents were even more motivated to get involved and contribute to the success of these initiatives.

5. Communication: To provide forums for introducing new ideas and discussing implementation, Principal Starwalt utilizes quick, 30-minute inservices for her school’s teachers. For instance, the discussion about kids’ recesses and not taking away those breaks as punishment took place during one of those inservices. Her commitment to kids’ health is widely known, and it provides her with a consistent platform for engaging and communicating with the entire school community, even when the kids are not in school. For example, she has engaged the communities and families to volunteer and help weed and monitor the school garden during the summer months. Whereas principals at many other schools may find it challenging to engage parents in most school activities and events, Principal Starwalt’s approach of engaging the kids and utilizing their enthusiasm to open the lines of dialogue with teachers and parents has been a winning strategy, for everyone involved.

—Judy Kuan, Vice President of Product Strategy at Adventure to Fitness.