Comprehensive School Health Education

What is the role of schools today?

Schools are increasingly seen as the hub of efforts to promote the health and well being of our nation's children. Prevention is the theme. If we want to address serious health and social problems, we must confront them when they are small, before they become unmanageable. We must give children the skills they need to grow into healthy adolescents and productive adults. And, the best place to do this work is where most children gather each day - our schools.

Health education is more relevant to good health today then ever before. At the turn of the 20th century, the major causes of premature disability and death in this country were infectious diseases. Today, as we approach the 21st century, virtually all the leading causes of premature death are rooted in unhealthy behaviors or social/environmental conditions. Consequently, many are preventable.

A high percentage of American's major health problems, some forms of cancer, heart diseases, and HIV infection, can be linked to unhealthy diets, substance abuse, lack of exercise, and other unsafe behaviors. In addition, many Americans, especially our youth, are engaging in more risk behaviors that threaten self-esteem, harm health, and increase the likelihood of illness, injury, and premature death. These risk behaviors are usually established during early childhood, persist into adulthood, and are interrelated, contributing to poor health, education, and social outcomes. Risk behaviors include: unintentional and intentional injuries; tobacco use; alcohol and other drug use; sexual behaviors that result in HIV infection, other STDs, and unintended pregnancy; a dietary pattern that contributes to various diseases; and insufficient physical activity. Thus, to counter these risk behaviors and to promote healthier behaviors among adults and adolescents, we must start by teaching our children. This is where school health education, and specifically comprehensive school health education, comes in. Study after study has confirmed that comprehensive school health curricula like Growing Healthy can effectively promote the knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors our students need to grow into healthy adults.

What is comprehensive school health education?

Comprehensive school health education is a planned sequential curriculum with each lesson and activity building on the last. It is intended to address not only the physical, but also the social and emotional dimensions of health. The curriculum is designed to motivate and assist students to maintain and improve their health, enabling students to develop the skills and attitudes necessary for health-related problem solving and informed decision making.

What makes a curriculum comprehensive?

A comprehensive curriculum:

  • Outlines the scope of instruction from start to finish. Monitored through its implementation, a comprehensive health curriculum is an age appropriate, planned, scientifically accurate, sequential program of health education for Kindergarten through Grade 12 students.
  • Covers a variety of health topics. A comprehensive curriculum educates students about a range of categorical health problems and issue. It should cover 10 specific topics:
    1. Mental and Emotional Health
    2. Family Life and Health
    3. Growth and Development
    4. Nutrition
    5. Personal Health
    6. Substance Use and Abuse
    7. Disease Prevention and Control
    8. Safety and First Aid
    9. Consumer Health
    10. Community and Environmental Health Management
  • Includes skills-building activities. A comprehensive health curriculum helps young people develop the skills they will need to avoid these six risk behaviors responsible for most premature morbidity and mortality among adolescents:
    1. Behaviors that result in unintentional and intentional injuries
    2. Drug and alcohol abuse
    3. Tobacco use
    4. Sexual behaviors that result in HIV infection, other STDs, and unintended pregnancies
    5. Unhealthy dietary patterns
    6. Inadequate physical activity
  • Sets minimum hourly requirements for health. A comprehensive program has specific guidelines prescribing the amount of time for health education at each grade level. Studies indicate that a minimum of 50 hours of instruction per year is necessary to affect behavior change.
  • Identifies a school health coordinator. In a school in which comprehensive health education is taught, at least one education professional is trained to implement the program and is responsible for its management and coordination.
  • Requires teacher training in health. All teachers responsible for health instruction are trained to teach a comprehensive health program.
  • Promotes maximum family and community involvement. Parents, health professionals, and other concerned community members have the maximum possible role in school health education and promotion for the students.
  • Provides for evaluation. A comprehensive curriculum is periodically evaluated, updated, and improved.

How do students benefit?

Comprehensive school health education enables students to meet the National Health Education Standards, which specify what students should know and what they should be able to do. These standards aim to help students make responsible decisions; use negotiation, communication, and decision-making skills; develop positive self-esteem; express feelings; and practice conflict resolution skills. Studies demonstrate that students who receive comprehensive health education are more likely to form healthful and responsible friendships, accept physical appearance, recognize that all people are different and have different needs, volunteer, use healthcare providers, and work to keep the air and environment clean. Well-prepared students: care for their bodies; follow a dental health plan; recognize the importance of sleep, rest, and exercise; reduce their risk of violence; and follow safety guidelines.

Students who receive comprehensive health education have health knowledge and life skills that can help them know the difference between wellness behaviors and health-related risk behaviors. They know the difference between healthful relationships and destructive relationships. They have decision-making skills and can evaluate options before deciding what course of action to take. They have resistance skills and can say "No" when pressured to participate in risky behaviors. Students feel empowered and are critical thinkers, problem solvers, responsible, self-directed learners, and effective communicators.

What can you do?

As a teacher or education professional, you will come into contact with a variety of students, many who are lacking the skills they need to grow up to be healthy, productive adults. They need someone to touch their lives, give them hope, make a difference, and aid them in learning important and necessary life skills. They need a teacher who will make a difference, who will impact their lives. You can be that person, reaching your students, giving them the guidance, opportunity, and life skills they need for a vibrant and productive life. Our students are at risk because health-related behaviors have compromised their health status. But, if teachers and education professionals like you make a commitment to providing comprehensive school health education and recognize its lasting effects, we can begin to rebuild a healthy nation in which our students are well-prepared, safe, and, most importantly, healthy.