Making schools better for kids

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It’s not easy being a kid in America: play times have gotten shorter, homework has increased dramatically, obesity rates have sky-rocketed and children are not getting the sleep they need (at least for middle and high school kids).

Looking back on the history of our education system, doctors, policymakers, and the government have all attempted to fix these issues by educating parents on the importance of healthy eating habits and encouraging them to set limits on television, computer, and video game time. But experts are increasingly looking to endorse policy changes in the places kids spend most of their day: in school.

In recent years, U.S. schools have begun to experiment with different programs designed to make students happier, healthier and better prepared to achieve their future goals. Of course, doing this has not been an easy task, especially with national budget cuts within the education system. (Most public schools get less state funding than they did before the recession.) And even though discussions over topics like teachers’ unions and Common Core are sure to garner more attention as the 2016 election nears, some innovators are making progress with fresh ideas that are starting to take off and may even become the norm in American classrooms.


Homework plays a very important role in the middle and high school learning process, but new research has shown that elementary school students do not particularly benefit from doing additional work after school. With this new information in hand, several schools have already begun taking a different approach: asking students to read whatever they want for 30 minutes each night. While it may be too early to measure the impact of this new approach, sources have confirmed that students seem to be much more engaged in class since these methods have been implemented. In fact, some teachers claiming that many students are performing “at higher levels” than others in years past who were given traditional forms of homework.


According to current statistics, adolescent obesity rates are quadruple what they were just 3 decades ago. Medical experts strive to encourage recess not just as a break for students, but more so as an opportunity to get some much needed exercise, which also helps to build a healthy mind. During an average school day, physical activity helps kids “recharge their brains,” claims a teacher of pediatric exercise science at The College of New Jersey. However, in the past decade, over 40% of U.S. school districts have either reduced or eliminated recess claiming the need for more academics and test preparation time. One solution: Incorporate exercise into everyday classroom lessons, as some schools are already doing. Check out for more ideas and info.


Mental Illness
The public school system makes it routine procedure to test children for both vision and hearing issues, but there is no current system in place for detecting or evaluating psychological issues. What this means is that conditions like anxiety and depression can go undiagnosed and untreated for many years. Boston’s public-school system has began an initiative to prevent that. Twice per year, students undergo social, emotional and behavioral evaluations; those deemed in need of services become eligible for both in-school psychological resources as well as referrals for outside care. The program which was launched during the 2012-2013 school year, according to school representatives, has already made a positive impact on the local school system.


Encourage Healthy Eating
School lunches have become much healthier over the past years. However, students still make the ultimate choice as to what they are going to eat. This is where education on nutrition proves to be a very important lesson. Studies show that students who buy school lunches opt for fruits or vegetables only about half of the time, and even then, a good portion of what’s taken ends up uneaten. In order to make fresh foods more appealing to students, Buckingham County K-5 public school in Dillwyn,Va., went so far as to redesign its kitchen so that the students can see fresh foods as they are being prepared. The school also focuses to encourage students to grow produce in the school garden. Results have shown that these changes have had a positive impact on student’s nutritional decisions during lunch time.


Studies have shown that attending a school with a diverse student body can lead to higher academic achievement and better real-world work preparation for all students. Yet a series of past Supreme Court decisions have allowed many integration efforts to dissolve, resulting in a school system that is seemingly more segregated than it was 5 decades ago. Several states have begun to oppose that trend. Connecticut has begun to make progress through a network of magnet schools that attract kids of different ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds. Statistics taken from the 2012-2013 school year, show that student bodies among these magnet schools were 30.2% white, 31.4% black, 30.5% Latino and 4.4% Asian— well above the national average when it comes to diversity.


Proactive Discipline
Getting detention or being sent to the principle’s office as a form of punishment may serve as a scolding for any type of misbehavior. However, that sort of discipline usually does not address resolving the problem at hand. The Durham Community School in Maine has taken a different approach which proves to be working. Teachers there emphasize dialogue as discipline. If a student misbehaves during class, for example, the instructor will ask the student to come up with a proper punishment such as standing in the corner during part of the lesson. This approach, developed by psychologist Ross Greene, was implemented at the Durham Community School beginning in 2011. During the 2012-13 school year, there were only eight instances of classroom disruption on record, down from 103 during the previous school year.


Involving Students
It has been well observed that children are more receptive of learning when they are made to feel like they are receiving personalized attention. A computer program utilized by schools with more then 10 million student users is Knewton, a virtual learning platform that adapts to a student’s learning needs in real time. If a student is struggling with a certain learning concept, Knewton will modify the lesson to help them understand it, based specifically on the student’s strengths which the program has also picked up on. The use of such programs within the education system would be able to offer a more detailed and focused learning experience for each student based on their individual abilities.


Proper Sleep
It has been long touted that students require a minimum of eight hours of sleep each night to be able to achieve their maximum learning potential throughout the school day. Proper sleep is also a basic necessity for staying healthy. Sleep deprivation can often lead to weight gain, personality and temper issues, trouble focusing, lower academic performance and other problems. Statistically, adolescents tend to stay up late, often until 11 p.m. or midnight. They are high-energy beings and sometimes winding down isn’t as easy as just going to bed. This is why federal officials and medical experts have been calling for middle and high schools to start later — at or after 8:30 a.m. which has been the popular suggestion from these sources. Right now, 4 out of 5 schools start their day before that time. This of course leads to further issues such as middle and high school students turning to stimulants such as coffee or energy drinks to help get them through the school day.


As you can see, there are many things within the educational system that would benefit from change, some things that are already benefiting from such efforts, and some places where we are still failing our children in areas where simple solutions are just waiting to work their way through the red tape of the system.