Student Health Matters

AFT’s new Children’s Health, Safety and Well-Being program relies on member priorities to promote equity at the intersection of health and education. To kick off the program, AFT conducted a national survey of member and leaders in 116 locals. The resulting report, Helpin?g Children Thrive,” shows that respondents identified three clear priorities in children’s health: mental health, access to health care, and food security.

We know that children’s health and well-being are intimately linked to their ability to learn and grow—and ultimately to gaps in achievement and equity that plague too many communities. Solutions include: growing community schools, improving access to school nurses and health professionals, retrofitting school buildings and promoting green cleaning, serving school meals high in nutrition, and reducing child labor and trafficking.

However, even though public schools are potentially well-positioned to address children’s health, few AFT members report satisfaction with their schools’ efforts. About 1 in 3 disagree or strongly disagree that “my school has adequate and appropriate policies, programs and services for the health and well-being of students.” Respondents are most likely to report satisfaction with policies and programs related to violence (including bullying), injury prevention and treatment, and illness.

Poor staffing is part of the problem; schools need more full-time staff and safe staffing ratios, especially when it comes to positions that address mental health. Another piece of the puzzle is related to training. More than 1 in 5 report being uncertain or very uncertain of their ability to handle children’s health issues. Low levels of self-estimated efficacy are likely linked to the fact that fewer than 1 in 5 receive training on children’s health more than once per year.

Survey responses revealed three overarching themes—staffing and funding, accountability, and health-care coordination—that are relevant to dialogue about school health programs. The cross-section of AFT members surveyed reported neither the health sector nor the education sector has clearly articulated best practices in staffing and funding. Nor is there consensus as to how much responsibility schools should take for meeting health and social-service needs. While most of those surveyed were willing to be responsible for attending to non-academic student needs, many of those who end up as impromptu “care coordinators” expressed dissatisfaction with lack of training and communication.

The report contains extensive anecdotal information from individual educators who commented on the issues raised. It also outlines possible policy responses to address mental-health needs, health-care access, and food security.

We commend the report to your attention. In addition, you should check out AFT’s related infographic booklet, “THRI?VE: Student health matters,” which describes strategies AFT members can use to promote children’s mental health, boost access to high-quality health care, and ensure kids’ well-being with nutritious school meals.