Wellness is a concept that encompasses much more than the idea of being “in shape.” The World Health Organization defines it as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Although wellness has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years, it has gained attention in the world of education for good reason. From significant impacts on students’ academic outcomes to lasting effects that span into adulthood, wellness is a critical component of student success.
Wellness is holistic and houses eight dimensions: physical, mental, environmental, financial, spiritual, social, emotional, and vocational (Figure 1). The breadth and importance of wellness is one reason why concepts such as social-emotional learning (SEL) have become more prominent in schools. Another reason stems from the requirement of a ‘Fifth Indicator’ under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which pushed schools to analyze more than grades and test scores and dig deeper into non-cognitive factors affecting student success.
Research delving into 213 school-based SEL programs indicated that SEL participants demonstrated significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance that reflected an 11-percentile-point gain in achievement. Such research has urged schools, such as St. Louis Public Schools among others, to include an evaluation of SEL in their schools. However, the concept of SEL is bigger than improving student academic outcomes and can have lasting impacts on students’ lives. A recent research study found statistically significant associations between measured social-emotional skills in kindergarten and key young adult outcomes across multiple domains of education, employment, criminal activity, substance use, and mental health.
Beyond SEL, a report from the Center for Disease Control highlighted a strong connection between healthy behaviors and academic achievement, including grades, standardized tests, graduation rates, and attendance. Data from the 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey show that students who earn higher academic grades are more likely to engage in healthy dietary behaviors, more physical activity, and get more sleep per night as compared to students who earn lower grades. These survey results provide support for the idea that nutrition, fewer sedentary behaviors, and adequate rest - all components associated with wellness - may be pieces of a bigger puzzle.
Connections between student wellness and policy are apparent at both the national and state levels. Specifically, in 2004, Congress passed the Child Nutrition and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children Reauthorization Act (Sec. 204 of Public Law 108-265). This act required all school districts, charter schools, and independent schools participating in the National School Lunch Program or other child nutrition programs to create local school wellness policies by the 2006-2007 school year. This legislation placed the responsibility of developing a wellness policy at the local level so the individual needs of each district or school could be addressed. In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (Sec. 204 of Public Law 111-296) and added new provisions for local school wellness policies related to implementation, evaluation, and public reporting on the progress of local school wellness policies. Now, school programs like Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) have been created to promote positive health behaviors and reduce negative health behaviors in schools across the country.
On a state level, Missouri Senate Bill 603 created the Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program to make health and physical education courses accessible to students online. Launch, operated by Springfield Public Schools, is one example of a virtual education system in Missouri that makes wellness-related courses and information, among others, easy to access and more flexible for students to complete. From Health and Personal Finance courses to Physical Education courses, which are tracked through the use of provided fitness trackers such as FitBits, the online course system provides needed wellness programming to students that may promote positive health behaviors moving forward, well into the future.
In summary, support for school wellness programs, which ultimately seek to positively influence student health behaviors and learning, is growing. Evidence-based, effectively coordinated, and strategically planned school programs and services may provide a step forward in closing academic achievement gaps and providing lifelong benefits to students.