Health education gets a federal boost

Schools step up to the plate and take an active role in Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative.
Schools are encouraged to take an active role in Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative.

Roughly a third of American children are overweight, researchers say, and 17 percent are obese—a condition that increases their risk of getting diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other illnesses.

Many health experts point to the amount of “screen time” that today’s students are logging as a key contributing factor in the child obesity epidemic. Now, backed by a campaign launched by First Lady Michelle Obama earlier this year, some schools are using the same technologies that have many kids glued to their cell phones and iPods for hours at a time as useful instructional tools in their health-education programs.

To encourage students to adopt a healthier lifestyle, one recent lesson at Aaron Academy, a private special-education school in New York, had students research the nutritional content of popular food items online, then download this information to their mobile computers.

Barbara McKeon, director of Aaron Academy, said part of the school’s mission is to provide a 21st-century learning environment, and teachers embrace technology in all curriculum areas.

Each student receives a MacBook and an iPod Touch, both of which are used for everyday instruction.

“Students did research on food labels, so they went to [the food companies’] web sites … and looked at the information, [then] recorded that information on their MacBook,” said McKeon, explaining the lesson on nutrition.

Other teachers are showing health-related videos from companies such as BrainPOP, Discovery Education, Library Video Co., New Dimension Media, and others, to underscore lessons in a way that is much more powerful than reading about the content in a traditional textbook.

Noting that students tend to be more engaged in the content when watching video, Allison Arunski, marketing manager for Cerebellum Corp., said her company has been creating educational videos since the early 1990s.

The company produces DVD-based video vignettes that generally last seven to 12 minutes, with the aim of presenting real-life scenarios and posing questions about topics that include health, nutrition, and body image. The DVDs come with teachers’ guides to facilitate conversations sparked by watching the videos.

“Instead of a teacher or expert talking to the students, we like to re-enact a classroom, playground, or home scenario. And we usually end the scenario with a discussion question,” Arunski said.

Mark Kittleson, professor of public health education at Southern Illinois University, said using technology in school health programs might still be the exception, not the norm—but that is quickly changing.

“Technology is certainly a critical part that we should be incorporating, but I’ve seen a lot of reluctance among education,” he said. Today’s kids are using many technologies outside of class, he added, “and to ignore it would be pretty ridiculous.”

Kittleson noted that many schools ban students from using cell phones in class, but he argued that teachers should embrace smart-phone applications in their lessons.

“Teachers should be prepped to show kids that when they go to McDonald’s and they want to find out how many calories are in a Big Mac, if they have a smart phone, they can find out in a matter of seconds,” he said.

Apple’s Apps Store contains dozens of health-related applications for the iPhone or iPod Touch such as tools that can help users count calories, monitor their fitness, and even access nutritional information on a variety of foods.

Teachers also can use Facebook or other social-networking tools as a way to include parents in the health-education process, Kittleson said.

“I can see where a teacher could have a Facebook page, and students and parents can go there to find out information about what students are learning and what assignments are,” he said, adding: “Parents play a critical role in the health of students.”

That’s part of the reasoning behind a Toronto company’s decision to put its health-education curriculum online.

In response to the growing demand for supplemental materials that students can access outside of school, Core Learning President and Chief Executive Officer Doug Hatch has begun creating an online component to the curriculum software his company has offered for years.

“Health really starts in the home,” Hatch explained. “If we want kids’ health and hygiene to be better, it helps if moms and dads really know what their children are learning about health.”

By offering its curriculum online, Core Learning hopes to help parents get involved in their children’s health education as well.

“There’s much [that parents] can learn from the curriculum, too,” Hatch said.

The online courses allow students to have access to the curriculum 24-7. Students don’t need to be on a computer at school, and they can work on the lessons at their own pace. Hatch said Core Learning’s software is being revamped to work with interactive whiteboards as well.

‘Let’s Move’

Health education is getting a significant boost from First Lady Michelle Obama, who kicked off a major initiative on the topic in February. The program, called “Let’s Move,” has set an ambitious goal—to put America on track to solving the childhood obesity problem in a generation.

“Thank God it’s not going to be solely up to me,” Mrs. Obama said recently, stressing that the solution will require stepped-up effort from parents, schools, businesses, nonprofit groups, health professionals, and government agencies.

The campaign has four parts: helping parents make better food choices, serving healthier food in school vending machines and lunch lines, making healthy food more available and affordable for everyone, and encouraging children to exercise more.

Health-education advocates couldn’t be happier to have a popular first lady adopting childhood obesity as her cause. They’re also keenly aware of how difficult the problem will be to solve.

“You don’t just go from epidemic obesity to epidemic leanness,” said obesity expert Dr. David Katz, director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center.

Still, Katz said, Mrs. Obama can provide the inspiration to help “shift the massive momentum of our society in the right direction.”

A decade ago, the government’s “Healthy People” program set a 2010 target that just 5 percent of children would be overweight or obese. The most updated government figures, released in January, weighed in at 32 percent for 2007-08. The childhood obesity rate has at least held steady in recent years, but at levels that still leave today’s children on track to die younger than their parents.

The first lady said she spent the past year figuring out how to talk about all of this “in a way that doesn’t make already overstressed, anxious parents feel even more guilty about a very hard thing.”

Ideas for addressing the problem include increasing federal money to make healthier school lunches for poor kids; improving the nutrition standards for school lunches; expanding the time available for school recess and physical education; prodding food makers to stop targeting children with ads for high-calorie treats on TV and in online video games; getting more restaurants to print nutrition information on menus; and providing more behavior counseling to overweight kids.

The school lunch program, which is up for an overhaul by Congress this year, is one sure area of focus, and the administration is working with legislators on how to revise it. There should be some extra money available: President Obama’s proposed budget calls for an additional $1 billion a year for child nutrition programs, and last year’s economic stimulus package included $500 million for one-time grants to help states and communities tackle smoking, obesity, and various preventable health problems.

Dora Rivas, president of the School Nutrition Association and director of food services for the Dallas public schools, said Mrs. Obama can be a “great motivator” for parents and kids. But, she said, schools need more federal dollars to work more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into lunches, and to keep up with the growing numbers of children who qualify for free or reduced-cost meals.

The first lady appealed to the nation’s governors on Feb. 20 for help in reducing child obesity, saying they have a moral and financial imperative to act.

“Let’s stop wringing our hands and talking about it and citing statistics,” she told governors at their winter meeting. “Let’s act. Let’s move. Let’s give our kids the future they deserve.”

Mrs. Obama sought support from leaders of both parties and made sure to respect the influence of the states.

“The way I see this, there is nothing Democratic or Republican, there is nothing liberal or conservative about wanting our kids to lead active, healthy lives,” she said. “There’s no place for politics when it comes to fighting childhood obesity. And I know all of you agree.”

In talking to the governors, she emphasized the importance of empowering parents who feel helpless because they don’t feel they have the time, money, or information to provide healthy meals or safe places to exercise.

Mindful that the governors face economic crises in their states, she said the obesity solutions don’t have to be expensive. She encouraged them to take steps such as providing access at school ball fields to the community at nights, or requiring the construction of sidewalks when new roads are being built.

“Comprehensive and coordinated doesn’t mean centralized,” she added. “I’ve spoken to so many experts on this issue, and not a single one of them has said that the solution is for the federal government to tell people what to do. That doesn’t work.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


“Let’s Move”

Aaron Academy

Cerebellum Corp.

Core Learning Online

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Next Generation Collaboration resource center. The ability to work together on group projects is seen as an increasingly important skill for the 21st-century workplace, and a growing number of schools are rewriting their curriculum to include opportunities for such collaboration as a result. Go to:

Next Generation Collaboration

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