Why Educational Leaders Must Inspire a Culture of Health and Well-Being in Schools

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has had a “silent” national health crisis. Millions of children and adolescents are at risk for cardiovascular disease due to high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. Rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues have skyrocketed.

As student health has steadily declined, physical education — and the opportunity for physical activity — has been greatly reduced in schools over the last two decades. As superintendent of a public school district in Kentucky, I believe we have an inherent responsibility to help students develop a love and understanding of physical activity, nutrition, and other healthy behaviors.

To address the health needs of our students, we must stop being reactive and start being more proactive. While attending SHAPE America’s annual advocacy event — SPEAK Out! Day — in March, I met with legislators on Capitol Hill to advocate for more funding for health and physical education programs. Most legislators, on both sides of the aisle, supported the idea of prevention as a means to reduce rising health care costs. I believe prevention starts in schools.

Here are five things we must do as educational leaders to inspire a culture of health and well-being in schools:

1. Make health and well-being a priority.

School leaders must communicate and model the expectation that health and well-being are important in school — and not just for students, but for teachers and staff as well. What we have increasingly discovered is that leaders play a critical role in improving the health of students and staff.

When school leaders communicate the expectation that health and well-being are important, change occurs, stakeholders listen, and student and staff health begin to improve. The same is true for schools and districts where leaders remain silent about health and well-being — stakeholder health remains on the back burner as an afterthought.

A table full of healthy food and water bottles
We provide teachers and staff with free healthy snack options during meetings.

2. Model health and well-being.

On Tennis Shoe Tuesdays, faculty and staff wear fitness attire so they can participate in fitness activities before, during and/or after school. This is just one way we model our focus on health, fitness and nutrition.  

In January, I helped start #FITSupts, a nationwide effort for superintendents to model health, fitness, and well-being. As of May, we have superintendents across the nation sharing their daily/weekly wellness efforts on social media. There is nothing more important in developing a culture of health, fitness and nutrition in an organization than the leader. The leaders — in this case, superintendents — have the opportunity and responsibility to educate students, teachers, staff, and other leaders.

Superintendents are the gatekeepers to all initiatives in a school district. Whether those initiatives fail or succeed depends on the actions of the district leader. In the absence of leadership, the health gap among students, teachers and staff will widen. If superintendents are modeling the expectation of health, fitness, and nutrition, others will fall in line and do the same.

3. Connect student achievement and health.

As mentioned earlier, student access to physical education and recess has been greatly reduced over the past two decades, giving way to a focus on student achievement. I am not suggesting that we forget student achievement, but instead, look at student achievement differently.

Consider this: In Finland, students take 15-minute physical activity breaks every hour and have among the highest levels of student achievement in the world. Furthermore, the health of the Finnish people is starkly better than the health of Americans. Early in the students’ education journey, they instill the importance of health, fitness and nutrition. They recognize the importance of health and achievement and strategically connect both. It’s not an either-or decision — Finnish schools make both student achievement and student health a priority.

American schools that take a similar approach see higher levels of student engagement than those schools that continue to reduce opportunities for physical activity. In schools that emphasize health, fitness and nutrition, students are absent less, have fewer discipline referrals, experience fewer incidents of bullying, and have higher levels of self-esteem.

Students in a circle around student leader inside gymnasium
Sixth-grade students organize student-led physical activity breaks every Thursday at 10:10 a.m.

4. Move past operationalizing a plan.

Without a doubt, having a health and well-being plan is important. The problem is, for most, health and well-being plans have been required by states for decades. Nothing has changed, however, and student and staff health has gotten worse.

The problem with health and well-being plans is that they fall victim to what happens to other plans — they immediately go on the shelf and start collecting dust. Yes, develop a plan! But then embed it in your day-to-day operations.

Health and well-being isn’t something to address quarterly, annually, or when something bad happens. Having day-to-day emphasis and utilization will help grow a culture of health and well-being in schools.

5. Remove constructs.

The biggest construct in the paradigm shift is the status quo, specifically the leader’s mindset. Superintendents can, knowing, unknowingly, or being closed-minded, stop any initiative, program or movement. This includes a focus on health, fitness and nutrition. If the superintendent fails to see value in an initiative, the initiative never leaves the gate and is buried with the other possible transformative initiatives for students, staff and the district.

With health, fitness and nutrition, superintendents must have an open mind, think outside the box, and focus on the positive outcomes: improved student health, achievement, and engagement.

I already know that many superintendents will say that the strategies are too simplistic or grandiose. In many cases, I would concur. But, as superintendents and leaders, we must start somewhere. If we are always communicating through words or actions that health, fitness and nutrition are too hard to tackle or not important, nothing will ever change.

What I’ve learned is that when leaders empower teachers, school leaders, and students to lead, magic happens every time.

Additional Resources

Brian Creasman

Brian Creasman has been superintendent of Fleming County Schools since 2014. He has the privilege of leading, learning and collaborating with students, staff, and the best community each day. Over his career, he has been fortunate to serve as a teacher, assistant principal, middle school principal, high school principal, and assistant superintendent. Brian is the 2020 Kentucky Superintendent of the Year and a nationally recognized author. Connect with him on Twitter at @FCSSuper or contact him via-email at brian.creasman@fleming.kyschools.us.