School Wellness Initiatives Begin With the Principal

Become an advocate for schoolwide health and wellness.

September, 2016, Volume 40, Issue 1

Given the increased attention on school-based programs to decrease obesity and emphasize fitness among children, there is an alarming lack of attention on health- and wellness-related efforts in school settings. Although principals clearly perceive a responsibility to foster healthy school environments, lack of time and attention may inhibit their abilities to focus on school wellness. Yet, when principals manage to find ways to provide support, resources, and motivation to school-wellness initiatives, they lead by educating, innovating, and celebrating health and wellness initiatives.


There are a multitude of wellness-related concepts that can be addressed in the school setting. For example, many children consume at least half of their meals at school. And for some, meals served at school may be the only food they regularly eat. With more than 30 million children participating in the National School Lunch Program and more than 12 million participating in the School Breakfast Program, good nutrition at school is more important than ever. To accomplish this, encourage food service choices based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, such as more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; low-fat milk dairy products; and less sodium and fat. Other strategies include serving the right portions, encouraging more water consumption, keeping kids active, limiting their screen time, and making sure they get enough sleep.

Serve the right portions. Menus from the Healthier US School Challenge for elementary and middle grades demonstrate the right size portions for children. provides practical information for schools to balance consumption from the five food groups, including fruits, vegetables, protein, grains, and dairy. Leaders from various sectors have stepped up through Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools, an initiative of the Food Family Farming Foundation, National Fruit and Vegetable Alliance, United Fresh Produce Association Foundation, and Whole Foods Markets.

As a nation, we need to support salad bars in schools because they have been shown to increase intake and acceptance of fruits and vegetables by kids. They are an effective means of implementing the new school meal requirements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Every teacher knows the impact of sugar highs on kids after an abundance of sweets. Teach kids to limit sugary snacks and drinks at school and home.

Drink water. Adults and kids should definitely drink when they are thirsty, when it’s warm out, or when they’re exercising. Dehydration keeps us from being as fast and as sharp as we need to be. Not only does water fight dehydration, but it’s also refreshing and has no calories.

Stay active. The case for healthy lifestyles gets ever stronger with new findings on positive impacts of physical activity on brain function, attention span, learning, achievement, and disease prevention. Physical activity is vital for a child’s development and provides a foundation for a healthy and active life. Schools should offer a wide range of structured and unstructured play-based, physical learning experiences that link to children’s interests, skills, and abilities. Recommendations include 60 minutes of exercise a day for kids. Make the most of recess. In addition, adults can serve as role models to encourage children and families to participate in physical activity.

Limit screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that children older than 2 years old use screen media (e.g., TV, videos, DVDs, video games, and computers) for no more than two hours per day, yet U.S. children use these media for an average of about seven hours per day. Consider judicious use of screen-media within the school day. Strategize schoolwide opportunities to limit screen time at school and home to help students recognize alternatives that might include outdoor play, reading a book, or conversation.

Get enough sleep. How a person feels and performs during the day is related to how much sleep he or she gets the night before. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 10 hours of sleep for children. At the same time, there is an increasing demand on their time from school with extracurricular and social activities. TV, computers, the media, and the Internet, as well as caffeine products, all can lead to difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Educate kids that adequate sleep impacts learning, memory processes, attention, and academic performance in the classroom.


Perhaps most importantly, we encourage the celebration of wellness by way of community activities and recognition of accomplishments in schools where education and innovation are taking place. The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program, for example, which had previously focused on only academic achievement, now recognizes schools that emphasize health and wellness instruction. Communities and schools are increasingly partnering in fitness runs and mini-triathlons, applications for significant P.E. and wellness grants, and a host of other actions. News of such activities, accomplishments, and recognition can and should regularly be shared via newsletters and digital notes to parents, as well as press releases to local newspapers, radio and TV stations, and other PR/media communications.

Such celebrations are important since, due to concerns about students’ health and attitudes toward exercise, and motivated by a sense of duty to change the status quo, many school and community partners around the nation have made great strides in helping young people learn about—and practice—lifetime health and wellness. Given that every school district in the United States has a similar mandate and so little has been done to move the public health needle, the accomplishments of such programs are deserving of recognition. We hope that they will serve as examples for more schools and communities with the foresight to address their students’ wellness needs and, by doing so, impact their attention, attendance, and academic performance.

Sally Beisser is a professor in the School of Education at Drake University.

Randal Peters is an assistant professor in the School of Education at Drake University.

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