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Healthy Schools, Healthy Kids

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Four revolutionary school programs are teaching kids how to take care of their physical, social, and emotional health.

A few minutes of breathing mindfully before a test in a San Francisco high school. Studying a leaf of Swiss chard picked fresh from a school garden in Detroit. A jog around a track before the school day begins in Bowling Green, Ky.

Such peaceful moments may be rare for many of today’s kids, but their value is becoming increasingly important. The health challenges children encounter are a lot like those adults face: not enough time for quality meals, outdoor play, or family interaction; too much time staring at screens. Kids today are significantly more likely than previous generations to struggle with obesity, type 2 diabetes, and attention disorders.

Which is why some schools have begun teaching skills to help students thrive in a warp-speed world.

“Every generation has its specific health challenges, and kids now are much more scheduled,” says Jill Turley, national nutrition adviser at the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a nonprofit founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation to address childhood obesity. Because so much of that scheduled time is in school, she notes, what better place to learn healthy habits?

In recent years, Turley has seen schools begin to recognize and reprioritize the health of the whole child, creating programs in nutrition, mindfulness, bullying awareness, and physical movement, among others.

“Adults can attest to how hard it is to break a bad habit. If we can instill healthy lifestyle habits early on, the more likely it is that these behaviors will automatically become part of a kid’s lifestyle,” she explains.

There are also plenty of opportunities for adults who didn’t acquire healthy habits in their youth to learn along with the kids. “I’ve had parents call me and say they buy avocados every week” after their kids taught them about healthy fats, Turley says.

The following school programs are helping kids — and their families — flourish and grow.

Helping Young Minds Calm Down: Mindful Schools | Emeryville, Calif.

The Mindful Schools concept first surfaced in 2007 as an outreach program at a single public school in Oakland, Calif. Designed to help stressed-out students learn to manage their emotional and academic lives, it grew into a nonprofit teacher-training program as the demand for mindfulness instructors outpaced the program’s supply.

Today, Mindful Schools is one of dozens of organizations that promote these stress-management skills in classrooms across the country, making “mindful minutes” and “breathing balls” common school parlance.

Kory O’Rourke enrolled in a Mindful Schools course in 2012 and has taught mindfulness to her students at Gateway High School in San Francisco ever since. In the middle of her training, three of her students left school for several weeks because of mental distress. When they returned, she started sharing what she’d learned.

“They responded immediately,” she says. “When else in the day do they have time to be present? They loved it.”

Before a big test at Gateway, for instance, one teen may lead others through a body scan or a mindful listening activity, helping everyone calm down before tackling polynomial equations.

“I have always been a high-stress individual [and have] never allowed myself to feel anything but ‘productive’ emotions,” says recent Gateway graduate Fiorabella Cogley, who learned about mindfulness from O’Rourke during an American literature honors class.

She now makes room in her days to “smile, cry, and feel sadness, anger, disappointment, and all the emotions in between.” She views acknowledging her feelings as important — and routine — as “brushing my teeth.”

Mindful Schools’ director of programs, Matthew Brensilver, notes that the practice is not a quick fix for classroom management or conflict resolution.

Still, classroom ambiance often improves after the training, he says. Students are more focused, and teachers report feeling less stress and more job satisfaction. A more efficient teaching environment compensates for the minutes they devote to mindfulness practice.

Tellingly, Mindful Schools requires that teachers use the first six-week session of the program to learn mindfulness techniques themselves.

“Kids’ neurological systems develop in relationship to adults,” says Oren Sofer, senior program developer for Mindful Schools. “So if we don’t have adults who are well-regulated and able to provide mirroring for students, kids won’t be getting the basic neurological education they need.”

“Adding mindfulness to Gateway classrooms created a more caring, safe environment,” Cogley explains. “I noticed a lot more students ‘holding space’ — creating safe spaces for their peers to feel comfortable sharing their most intimate feelings without feeling like they were being judged.”

What kind of world might be built by a generation trained in self-awareness, nonreactivity, and listening? The Mindful Schools program makes you wonder. It may also inspire you to take a moment to breathe deep before your next obligation.

Take Home Lessons

Start small. Mindfulness practice doesn’t have to mean meditating for an hour every day. It can be as simple as taking a breath at a stoplight and realizing you’re doing it.

Don’t stress about it. Avoid thinking of mindfulness as one more thing you should do. Feeling overcommitted only creates more anxiety.

Be a student again. Learning mindful behaviors is even easier with training. Plenty of simple instructions are available online, like this one from Mindful magazine: bit.ly/2rQpxkq.

Upgrading School Lunch: Life Time Foundation | Chanhassen, Minn.

At Mackenzie Elementary-Middle School in Detroit, it’s common to find students wandering among the schoolyard’s six raised garden beds. Still, Brooke Juday, a nutrition educator with the nonprofit FoodCorps, did a double-take last summer when she saw a sixth-grade boy start munching on Swiss chard. Soon others began sampling it, too.

“They surprise me with what they will try and how they will try it,” Juday says.

Child-nutrition advocates are hoping to make healthy foods the norm at schools across the country. For it to become a reality, however, schools need more financial support — which is the primary goal of the Life Time Foundation.

“As parents, we work hard to ensure our kids have the right foods on their plates, only to place them in someone else’s care when it comes to nutrition at school,” says Barb Koch, Life Time Foundation’s executive director, explaining why the organization works with schools to improve meal programs.

In 2011 the foundation began partnering with school districts to remove what it calls the Harmful 7 from school menus, an ingredients list that includes trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup. While some health-conscious nutrition directors across the nation have begun to clean up their menus, many have been stymied by costs or not knowing where to start. This is where grants from the foundation help.

The school districts that Life Time supports have all accelerated the elimination of the Harmful 7 from their meals. They’ve used funding for new kitchen equipment, farm-to-school programs, staff training, breakfast programs, food trucks, and more.

More than 90 percent of public schools nationwide are now in compliance with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which mandates higher food quality and funding for gardens and farm-to-school programs. (Sadly, current federal budget proposals would cut support for this program.)

Thanks to a Life Time grant, Detroit Public Schools Community District now grows produce in 82 school gardens, as well as on 2.5 acres near its processing kitchen. Many feature DIY greenhouses that are popular field-trip destinations. The grant offsets the costs of providing more than 50,000 produce-heavy meals a day.

To preserve all the cucumbers, yellow squash, and other fresh produce from each school’s garden beds, former Detroit Public Schools food-service director Betti Wiggins installed a walk-in cooler and an industrial-grade washing station in the processing kitchen. (Wiggins is now implementing these practices for the Houston Independent School District, Texas’s largest school district.)

Wiggins testified before a congressional committee for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2009, when a typical meal for Detroit students consisted of pizza, iceberg salad, and chocolate milk. Things have come a long way. While she admits that every child wasn’t thrilled by the new menu’s choices, they know “that’s what we eat at school, so they eat it,” she says.

Take Home Lessons

Try new things. Channel the fearlessness of youth by trying unfamiliar vegetables. FoodCorps’ nutrition educator, Brooke Juday, advises adding them to a stir-fry, salad, or smoothie to make it less scary.

Favor diversity. When Juday plans a meal, she includes as many colors as possible and at least three food groups. She also suggests balancing flavors: Pair something salty with something naturally sweet or sour.

Be hungry. It’s no secret that kids eat more vegetables when they’re hungrier. Same goes for you: “We recommend kids go to recess first, so they come in hungry and eat what’s in front of them,” Koch says.

Pushing Back on Bullying: Committee for Children’s Second Step Program | Seattle, Wash.

At Converse Elementary outside of San Antonio, a group of second graders recently approached school counselor Aimee Bailey to report that a child had bullied them. “Wait a minute,” Bailey said. “Remember the definition of bullying? Was the child being mean?” Yes. “Is it happening over and over?” No, just today. “Was it one-sided?” No.

The kids realized, with a little help from Bailey, that it was a conflict needing resolution, but it wasn’t bullying. These second graders had begun to deploy a vocabulary of emotional intelligence for recognizing the behavior, a skill that helps prevent and defend against it.

This the first of the three R’s in the Committee for Children’s anti-bullying Second Step program: recognizing, reporting, and refusing the behavior.

Second Step, used at about 30 percent of elementary schools across the country, is one of a handful of social–emotional learning (SEL) programs with a specific anti-bullying unit. Embedding this component within the larger framework of an SEL program is key, developers of Second Step believe, because it lays the foundation for emotional intelligence and a positive school climate that prevents bullying.

Teaching kids not to bully is hard. It’s so difficult, in fact, that most experts believe it’s more effective to teach bystanders how to respond, says Committee for Children’s Mia Doces, who helped develop the program.

Bystander power — combined with heightened emotional intelligence and a positive school climate — works because bullying rarely happens in isolation, Doces explains. It’s a public act that rewards the perpetrator with social power. “They may have seen it work for others, maybe for older siblings or in the media,” she says. “It’s a way to assert themselves.”

Children often learn this from adults. “When kids see adults behave in negative ways — at sporting events, for example — they understand that’s how to appear powerful.”

This means it’s up to adults to show kids that bullying others isn’t real power. If anything, it’s a sign of weakness. Real power comes from within.

Take Home Lessons

Be an ally. Let bullies know that you won’t accept their behavior. Stand with a target, defend the person verbally, and report the act when appropriate.

Don’t feed trolls. Resist the temptation to engage with cyberbullies; they are usually energized by attention. Remember that everything you post online is public and permanent.

Foster a positive work culture. Bullying problems at school are rarely bad-kid problems; they’re typically environmental problems, says Mia Doces of the Committee for Children. The same can be said for workplaces. Promoting a respectful culture can prevent these incidents.

Bringing Back Movement: Active Schools Acceleration Project | Boston, Mass.

A running club meets with gym teacher Amy Oliver twice a week before classes begin at Cumberland Trace Elementary in Bowling Green, Ky. But the 50 club members aren’t the only ones on the track in the morning. Other early arriving students often get in a few laps, too.

It wasn’t always this way. The Cumberland running club is part of the Active Schools Acceleration Project (ASAP), a Tufts University ChildObesity180 initiative. The program is based on two premises: First, many schools don’t provide enough chances for activity during the day, so most American kids don’t get their recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity. Second, one of the easiest and cheapest ways to increase activity is through something most kids already love — running.

In 2015, ASAP launched a user-friendly program called the New Balance Foundation Billion Mile Race to encourage more schoolyard sprinting. Schools register, log the miles their students run on a website, and watch their school’s mileage-ticker rise. Together, schools all over the country work to reach the billion-mile goal.

“Even kids with minimal experience or exposure to traditional sports can participate,” says Dan Hatfield, who oversees school engagement for the Billion Mile Race. “You don’t need special equipment. Adults don’t need specialized skills: Classroom teachers, school nurses, and parents can all supervise.

“Most importantly, we know kids love to run. And adults — whether or not they’re runners — love seeing the benefits of getting kids moving.”

Without her P.E. teacher’s encouragement for the Billion Mile Race, Kinley, a Cumberland sixth grader, says she would still exercise — but probably not as much. “Kids will come to school talking about what they did over the weekend to get miles,” she says.

A little encouragement is all many kids need, says Hatfield, who adds that it’s not difficult to get schools on board. More than 7,900 schools across all 50 states have logged a total of more than 50 million miles.

“We had a walking and running program before, but using the Billion Mile Race has stepped it up a notch,” says Oliver. “Kids get way more excited when they know they’re pushing for a goal.” Oliver also organizes monthly fun runs for the whole school.

Benefits run the gamut and include the physical, social–emotional, and academic — as Hatfield and his team had hoped. “We’ve heard lots of teachers talk about how kids come into the classroom on task and ready to learn after participating,” he says, adding that some schools report kids being so excited about the program that it’s even reduced tardiness.

“It makes me feel better about myself,” Kinley says. “Running, for myself, is a motivation to do better in school. And it helps us get energy out.” In fact, she adds, “it kind of helps everything.”

Take Home Lessons

Keep it simple. Just about anyone who can ambulate can walk, jog, or run. Walk to the grocery store. Jog with your kids to school. Meet a friend for a walk after work instead of a drink.

Channel your competitive side. Challenge three friends to a monthly mileage goal — but pool your mileage -instead of competing against each other.

Sign up for a race. Even if you can’t run around the block, sign up for a 5K event. Don’t be afraid to walk the entire distance. The point is to get out and move in community. Before long, you may pick up your pace without even noticing.

This originally appeared as “Learning Opportunities” in the September 2017 print issue of Experience Life.

is a Minneapolis-based writer.