Partners in Wellness

Now is the time to strengthen family-school connections in service to students’ physical and mental health.

Topics: Social Emotional Learning, Health and Wellness

Since the onset of the pandemic, schools and families have been forced to work together closely to ensure that students could sustain their educations. Educators have the perfect opportunity to use that momentum to craft a healthier future for kids. We can take that innovation, resilience, and creativity and craft a robust—and real—partnership that brings together everyone who wants to see kids thrive.

Unfortunately, parents who want to get more involved aren’t always invited or don’t know how to begin. In 2020, Action for Healthy Kids did a nationally representative survey of approximately 1,000 parents and caregivers and found that more than 80 percent were interested in giving input to schools on student health programs, but 51 percent said they weren’t included in such discussions.

That’s what makes this year so important—it’s a chance to revitalize students’ mental and physical well-being, and that is best done by leveraging families’ expertise and enthusiasm and building school-​family partnerships that last.

Connecting to Health

Increasing family connectedness to the school includes feelings of shared responsibility and collective competence, and it can lead to increased family participation within the school. Research shows that this kind of participation has positive social, emotional, behavioral, and physical health outcomes for students.

For example, schools offering education about physical fitness to parents saw an increase in students meeting recommendations for physical activity and water consumption. Family involvement in nutrition policy is associated with schools more frequently utilizing healthy eating strategies and offering students healthier food options at school.

Schools with more volunteering and parent activities reported lower levels of disciplinary actions.

Also, schools that improved programs of school, family, and community partnerships from one year to the next decreased the percentage of students sent to the principal, given detention, and given in-school suspensions. Schools with more volunteering and parent activities reported lower levels of disciplinary actions.

The Hallmarks of Partnership

Strong family-school partnerships can take many forms, although most schools affiliated with Action for Healthy Kids establish some sort of committee that incorporates diverse parent voices, such as a school health team or wellness advisory committee.

Regardless of what form the partnerships take, the foundation of their success is trust. School communities that have a history of mistrust between caregivers and school staff must repair this mindset to encourage student achievement.

  • Action for Healthy Kids recommends the following actions for building trust, inclusivity, and equity in family engagement:
  • Consider the demographics of your community. Learn about their values and the specific challenges they might face.
  • Create a warm, welcoming environment that shows families that their input is desired, respected, and valued.
  • Offer multiple two-way communication channels so that families can ask questions and share opinions.
  • Minimize language barriers by recruiting bilingual and bicultural staff to participate. Arrange for quality interpretation.
  • Consider your own mindset. Disavow any preconceived notions about how parents think, what kind of expertise they have, and how they want to be involved.

Mile-High Engagement

A terrific real-world example of family engagement comes from Denver Public Schools. In 2016, a group of parents began working with Action for Healthy Kids to partner with DPS staff and make changes to school meals. Many parents are Spanish-​speaking or bilingual, and DPS typically had a hard time connecting with them.

In the last two years, this work has been formalized into the Denver Public Schools Health and Wellness Southwest Advisory Committee. The committee has successfully educated parents on how policy change is effected in the district, and it has expanded its work beyond healthy foods into advocacy on social-emotional learning, bullying prevention, and other topics.

DPS’ Health and Wellness Southwest Advisory Committee now meets eight to 10 times during the school year on topics related to school nutrition, physical activity, social-emotional climate, and mental health. These topics are determined by the committee members, and speakers from different student support services in DPS (social work, psychology, nursing, etc.) inform parents about the services available and opportunities for families to get engaged.

Parents on the DPS committee give themselves assignments between meetings to apply what they learn by establishing relationships at their schools and conducting research related to their focus areas.

As you begin the 2021–2022 school year, consider the role of family-school partnerships in shaping student health and well-being. Acknowledging the shared struggles of educating kids over the past year is a good way to begin to build deeper relationships.

By creating equitable lines of communication about your school’s goals and incorporating community feedback, you will be able to bring kids’ physical and mental health to the forefront and help make up for a year of isolation and inactivity. Joining together to facilitate change is simply the only option.

Sean Wade is director of family-school partnerships at Action for Healthy Kids.