OST offers opportunity for positive changes for children�s health

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OST offers opportunity for positive changes for children's health

By Patricia Patrick and Sarah Sliwa of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Whether working to curb infectious disease, support emergency preparedness, or promote healthier lifestyle behaviors, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) public health approach involves meeting people and their needs in the places where they spend their time.

At CDC Healthy Schools, located in the Division of Population Health, we work to prevent chronic disease and promote the health and well-being of young people in schools and out-of-school programs. We support a collaborative approach to strengthen connections between the two settings where kids spend most of their waking hours. Through a 5-year cooperative agreement with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, we’re aiming to introduce and reinforce healthy lifestyle behaviors, including physical activity and healthy eating, to promote emotional, intellectual, and physical growth.

Schools and OST programs work to reach the same kids and provide a safe place to learn, play, and discover, but school staff and OST providers vary in their approach. Facing less pressure around standardized testing, OST settings can offer greater freedom for independent exploration without fear of earning a “bad grade.” OST frontline staff often have more flexibility than classroom teachers and can be nimble and responsive with programming. This presents exciting opportunities.

No matter the setting, healthy children learn better. When young people arrive at a program, they bring with them what’s happening at school, with family, and in the community. This affects their ability to understand new information. Education and the economic stability that it can bring are important social determinants of health. People with higher levels of education tend to be healthier in the long term and in the short term. Physical and mental health also are linked with higher school attendance and readiness to learn.

The Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) model illustrates the types of supports needed to address non-academic barriers to learning by putting the child front and center. Afterschool programs have an established track record of supporting the whole child tenets (in green) and can reinforce what’s happening in many of those blue boxes—like the nutrition environment, physical education and activity, social emotional climate, family engagement, and promoting healthy role modeling through employee wellness initiatives. OST programs are also an essential part of the community (in yellow) that wraps around the WSCC model. Although the words “out of school” aren’t printed on this graphic, you can see many connections to your work.

Do school leaders know about the ways your programs are supporting students’ wellbeing and academic achievement? Do school leaders understand the relationships you have with parents?

Consider making school administrators and staff more aware of your work by tapping into existing conversations about wellness. All school districts that participate in the National School Lunch or School Breakfast program are required to have a local school wellness policy and share it with the general public (e.g., on a website). Wellness policies have to include certain components, including goals for physical activity, nutrition promotion, and education. Districts must allow community members, such as OST staff, to be involved in the wellness policy process. In the district where you work, what does the wellness policy say about before- or after-school programs?

Additionally, many schools use the School Health Index (SHI) to assess their current approach to supporting student health and wellness. OST programs working with schools that use the SHI, may want to be involved in the assessment or action planning process to provide accurate information and ensure their voice is heard.

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