5 Simple Ways Principals Can Prioritize Health and Wellness This School Year

Educators feel the pressure all around them. As a principal, I certainly do as well. Whether it be addressing the learning loss many students experienced from these past few years, the pressures of high stakes testing, or the host of new policies and regulations that have surfaced, new initiatives are competing for limited instructional time.

This leaves educators feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, searching for something to take off their plates. And, despite clear research demonstrating the positive impacts of health and wellness on academic achievement, schools may be tempted to put critically important physical activity programs on the back burner.

Don’t do it!

Several years ago, our school experienced an increase in discipline. We were at a loss as to how to address this after exhausting tighter consequences, revisiting classroom management, providing school-wide assemblies, and hosting parent sessions.

Our team began a journey of ensuring health and wellness is a primary part of our educational program and not an accessory to it. It is now built into the fabric of our days. With no idea that a global pandemic was a few years away, I sure am glad that we started this journey and have protected this commitment. I invite you to read on and learn simple ways that your school can prioritize health and wellness.

1. Build Excitement With School-Wide Events

There is something special about having your entire school together. It creates a sense of belongingness and camaraderie that is difficult to achieve when done in smaller groups. At Tyler Elementary, we have several health and wellness events that have been done over the years, with some of them becoming established annual traditions. A few are listed below for ideas:

  • Turkey Trot — A good old Turkey Trot right before Thanksgiving break has become one of our favorite events. Students run either a half or whole mile with their grade level. Parents and staff are invited to join them. Medals for top runners are awarded at the end.
  • Field Day — This day is full of stations focusing on different physical skills and most importantly, friendly competition and encouragement from peers. We schedule field day the Friday before a Monday federal holiday, which has allowed us to increase the number of parent volunteers. I am surprised when I hear schools no longer have field day to protect “academic time.”
  • Wellness Walk — Teachers lead their classes through a route along our school perimeter. Along the way, they participate in different activities that have been pre-planned by our physical education teacher. Examples include jump rope, dance, limbo, and parachute.
  • Mindful Sit — A mental health team member invites the entire school to sit along the inner hallways and leads students through a guided visualization over the PA system. The absolute silence and collective focus on mental health is powerful.

While these are just a few examples, it’s important to let go of the pressure or expectation that every new activity become an annual tradition. Pick and choose. Rotate them around. Adding too much is counterproductive but do be sure there is intentional planning of school-wide events.

2. Schedule It

Nothing is more frustrating than planning a school-wide event and not protecting it in the master schedule. As I mentioned before, there are a lot of things competing for instructional time. Add wellness events onto the school calendar and honor them.

While school-wide events are a great way to ensure your school keeps a focus on health and wellness, the day-to-day commitment is where it matters most. As a school, we have committed to each classroom having a 5- to 10-minute mindful practice. This sends the message to students that we pay attention to our mental health the same way we pay attention to our physical health. We make time for it.

As a school district, we have regulations guaranteeing quality physical education and activity. At a minimum, every class in elementary school is required to have PE twice every six days for 45 minutes as well as 30 minutes of daily recess. This varies greatly across districts and may be an excellent starting point for school leaders to advocate if your district does not prioritize physical activity.

3. Include Everyone

Health and wellness cannot be the responsibility of a single educator. Staff, students, and families should feel both a responsibility for and benefit from a school’s commitment. Invite families to join events. Ensure all students, regardless of age or ability, are accommodated. From experience, no one loves a fun run more than a preschooler.

Ensure staff know they are worth it. They, too, should be on the receiving end of these benefits. For example, mindful practices are not just for students. I start every leadership and staff meeting with a short mindfulness practice. For many educators, those five minutes may be the only time they get to be present in the moment that day. Doing this also provides educators with easy, replicable ways for them to ensure their students engage in daily mindfulness.

4. Encourage Innovation

There are lots of ways to focus on health and wellness. Simply put, principals are not the experts in this area and should nurture a climate and culture that allows staff to feel comfortable suggesting new ideas. One of the best pieces of advice I received as a brand-new administrator was from Dr. Tim Healey, principal of Colgan High School. He said, “Say ‘yes’ whenever you can. There are too many times when this job may require a ‘no’.”  

That always comes to mind when a teacher makes a request. I say yes unless I absolutely have to say no. This philosophy has resulted in great ideas becoming practice. For example, we now have “Walking Wednesdays” where everyone dresses comfortably and puts in extra effort to get more steps throughout the day. Teachers may walk their students around the outside of the school to get to their next location versus through the halls.

Because of staff innovation, we’ve had staff yoga, literacy yoga in the school garden during the summer months, recess mileage club, family mindfulness night, bike rodeos, and various staff-sponsored clubs over the years.

5. Have Fun

This sounds cliché but it’s true. Having some fun along the way is the difference between whether something stays or goes. If a focus on health and wellness becomes tedious and difficult, it will quickly become something to avoid.

What comes to mind is a challenge our PE educator, Maria Trochan, arranged at the end of each class this past year for all students — the “impossible shot.” If you aren’t familiar with this, students stand a pre-determined distance from a small tube where they attempt to lob a tennis ball precisely into the small opening. It visually seems simple enough but trust me, it’s not. It takes strategy, control and focus. I’ve tried … many times.

The first time a student made the impossible shot, Maria asked me to check the video surveillance. What stood out to me when I viewed the video was not how amazing it was that the student made the shot (although it was clearly amazing). What stood out to me was the pure and sincere excitement that her classmates showed afterwards. Instantly, they surrounded her with hugs and cheers.

We decided to add the clip to the morning announcements. We noticed more students started making the impossible shot. And more students were observed to be excited for their peers. They were having fun and building skills and self-confidence along the way.

As educational leaders, we are well positioned to positively impact the health and wellness of our school communities. The start of a new school year is a prime time to grow your school’s focus on health and wellness.

We do not have to wonder if it is worth it or important enough to allocate precious minutes. The research is clear. How will you ensure a focus on health and wellness in your school this year?

Additional Resources

Jennifer Perilla

Jennifer Perilla is the principal of Tyler Elementary School in Prince William County, Virginia. She has been in education for 22 years with 11 years as a principal. She graduated from the University of Virginia and George Mason University, later earning her administrative licensure from the University of Mary Washington. Learn more about Tyler Elementary’s wellness activities by visiting their Facebook and Twitter pages.