Applying a Health Equity Lens to School Health

During August and September each year, schools across the country open their doors to usher in another academic year. According to the US Department of Education approximately 50 million students attend public elementary and secondary schools. These students eventually will become adults that may be impacted by chronic diseases. Best practices for promoting health and preventing chronic disease are most effective during childhood and adolescents. Health behaviors and approaches to health developed during these stages of human development can last a lifetime.

During the 2015 academic year, US public school enrollment reached the majority-minority milestone. For the first time in US history, the overall number of racial and ethnic minorities; Latino, African American and Asian, students in public K – 12 classrooms surpassed the number of Non-Hispanic whites. This demographic shift presents opportunities to develop new approaches to school health and chronic disease prevention programs.

In 2014, the Association for School and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed a unified approach to learning and health, the Whole School, Whole Community and Whole Child (WSCC) Model. This model incorporates the components of coordinated school health programs around the tenant of a whole child approach to education and provides a framework to address symbiotic relationship between learning and health. Also WSCC calls for greater alignment, integration, and collaboration between education to improve each child’s cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development. Use of the WSCC model could address many determinants of health and facilitate the adoption of lifelong healthy behaviors and prevention of chronic diseases.

The multiple causes of chronic diseases, health disparities and outcomes are complex.

Racial and ethnic minorities as a whole have a higher prevalence of diabetes, stroke and other largely preventable disease and conditions that their white counterparts. School and adverse childhood experiences (ACE) can shape health across and entire lifetime and contribute to health disparities. Though defined broadly, ACE includes a spectrum of social conditions linked to many causes of adult morbidity and mortality. Because of the changing demographics of US public education school enrollment, serious approaches to school health with a health equity lens must consider ACE and trauma informed care. Early life experiences affect physical and behavioral health. Trauma informed care can help address those deeply rooted causes that contribute to certain health behaviors and poor health outcomes.

WSCC model provides a foundation for promoting healthy behaviors through coordination of school health. Integrating a health equity approach cognizant of trauma informed care can make lasting impacts on systems designed to prevent chronic diseases. Participate in NACDD President’s Health Equity Challenge by signing the health for all pledge. For strategies to incorporate school health equity into chronic disease and health promotion programs in your state contact Steve Owens, sowens@chronicdisease.org.