Doctor's Orders: The state of health education in elementary schools 01

Instructor teaching first aid cardiopulmonary resuscitation course and use of automated external defibrillator workshop in primary school class.

A few years ago, I decided to go back to school and get a doctorate degree. It wasn’t fun by any stretch of the imagination, but I did learn a lot. For my dissertation, I wanted to know how many elementary school teachers were actually teaching health in their classrooms.

To understand the background, I came by the topic honestly. I had been teaching elementary school health to future teachers for a few years leading up to this point. I had an assignment where my students were to go into classrooms and teach little health lessons. The issue became that my students were having a hard time finding classrooms where teachers taught any health and in fact, they were being turned away from whole schools. After a few years of this, I wanted to learn what was really happening as this trend was alarming to me as a health educator.

I did a focus group with teachers and wrote up a survey. I wanted to know how much time they spent teaching health in a given week, and what of the curriculum they were covering in their classrooms. I ended up surveying 240 teachers and the results were a bit alarming.

The national average recommended instruction time for health education in elementary schools is 90 minutes per week. This study found that 15% of teachers surveyed did not teach it at all, 66% spent less than 30 minutes per week on it, and 20% spent between 30-60 minutes per week on health. If you think about that a little, that equates to six to 12 minutes a day of health instruction. No teachers surveyed met the 90-minute recommendation.

Barriers to teaching health included reasons like if teachers were not knowledgeable about health, then they didn’t teach it; if the school they taught at didn’t approve of teaching health, then they didn’t teach it; the attitudes of the local school district; and the fact that time needed to be spent getting students ready for common core testing.

One national statistic backed up my data on this, and it noted that 30 of 33 hours of instructional time per week is spent readying students for common core testing. This leaves three hours/week to teach the seven remaining topics — health, art, language, music, physical education/dance, educational technology and library — that’s roughly six minutes per topic per day. This highlights the sad state of affairs in education in my opinion.

The curriculum being covered was also interesting. I found that kindergarten through second grades are covering the curriculum. Good job!

Third grade is covering healthy relationships and stress management, but not teaching HIV awareness and dysfunctional eating. Fourth grade is covering the aforementioned two plus conflict management, but not addressing HIV awareness, universal precautions, major body systems and vitamins and minerals.

Fifth grade is covering stress management, but not HIV awareness and digestive and glandular systems. Sixth grade is teaching respect for self and others, viruses, hygiene and the physiological effects of substance abuse, but not HIV awareness, universal precautions or how to read nutrition labels.

Bottom line. If you want your children to learn about health, you may need to teach it at home otherwise, the first taste of it they get in formal education is seventh or eighth grade. By that time, children have already formed habits that could last them a lifetime. If you want them to know that they aren’t supposed to touch other people’s blood — HIV awareness — it looks like you need to have a conversation with them about it. Same goes for how the human body works, vitamins and minerals and how to read nutrition labels. Don’t assume that they are learning it elsewhere, because there is no guarantee they are.

Dr. Merilee Larsen is an assistant professor of public and community health at Utah Valley University.

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