Healthy kids learn better

It seems like summer just arrived here in the Pacific Northwest, yet another school year is just around the corner. Each year Multnomah County Health Department and other community organizations gear up to support children, families, schools and communities to keep kids healthy in school so that they can learn and thrive.
Supporting kids in school is a particularly important part of our health department’s vision of healthy people in healthy communities. We know that student health affects test scores, attendance, classroom behavior, grades and graduation rates. This is not news to parents and caregivers.

When children miss school – whether the reason is influenza, a toothache, or emotional and social struggles – kids fall behind. This can have lifelong consequences for kids, families and communities. Studies show that adolescents with poorer general health are less likely to graduate from high school on time and attend college or post-secondary education than healthier students.

Multnomah County has a strong commitment to keeping kids healthy in school. We know that schools with large numbers of students engaging in weekly physical activity and eating nutritious foods show greater gains in test scores than other schools. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, general physical activity enhances student concentration and attention and improves classroom behavior. Studies also show that students in communities with school-based health centers have greater academic achievement than communities without them.

In Multnomah County last year, we provided 18,000 yearly visits through 13 school-based health centers. We administered more than 25,000 immunizations to keep kids current on their vaccine schedules. We enrolled more than 24,000 kids in a voluntary fluoride program to protect against dental decay. We supported seven school districts in developing healthy guidelines to increase access to healthy food and physical activity. And we provided more than 3,000 teens with six hours of instruction on pregnancy prevention and healthy relationships. All of this work is done in partnership with school and community partners to improve student health and academic success.

Healthy kids learn better and we all have a part to play. We can create a broad community of support for health by making small changes at our schools, in our neighborhoods and at home. Small changes can make a big difference and add up to real results for all of the children in our community.

As the National Association of State Boards of Education points out, “Health and success in school are interrelated. Schools cannot achieve their primary mission of education if students and staff are not healthy and fit physically, mentally and socially.”

Lillian Shirley BSN, MPH, MPA, is director of the Multnomah County Health Department.

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