The link between good health and academic success is strong. Studies consistently show that issues like obesity, physical inactivity, and chronic illness can affect students’ ability to pay attention in class and can lead to poor school performance.

According to the National Association of State Boards of Education, “Health and success in school are interrelated. Schools cannot achieve their primary mission of education if students and staff are not healthy and fit physically, mentally, and socially.”

As a parent group leader, you have a unique opportunity to help children become healthier by targeting your efforts to the very place where they spend much of their time: school. Given that kids are at school more than anywhere else except for home—roughly six hours a day, 180 days a year for 13 years—it makes sense that schools should not only challenge students’ minds but also teach them to take good care of their bodies.

Many schools have already recognized this. They’ve taken steps to educate children about the importance of being fit while encouraging nutritious food choices. Some schools have replaced high-sugar and high-fat cafeteria and vending machine offerings with healthier selections while teaching kids about the importance of eating right and getting enough exercise. Schools have tackled other health concerns as well, with programs that teach kids about personal safety; protect against illness; and warn about the dangers of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco.

If your school needs a push in a healthier direction, call together a meeting of your parent group to start planning your strategy. With its organizing ability and access to students, teachers, staff, and families, your PTO is in a good position to help influence your school to become a healthier place. Here are some ways to do that:

1. Identify the issues.
How can your school better care for its students’ physical and emotional well-being? Put together a survey or create a focus group of students, parents, teachers, and others to discuss concerns and possible changes. Suggestions might include:

  • Healthier choices on the school lunch menu and in school vending machines.
  • Providing nutritious breakfast foods for children who come to school hungry.
  • More opportunities for physical activity during the day at recess, during PE classes, during class time, and before or after school.
  • Greater emphasis on personal hygiene to help fight germs.
  • Volunteer hall, recess, or school bus monitors to ensure that students stay safe.
  • More education and higher awareness about food allergies and chronic illnesses that affect students.

2. Find out from your building principal or nurse whether your school has policies that address your concerns.
All schools that participate in the federal lunch program must have wellness policies in place that cover nutritional standards for foods sold at school as well as goals for nutrition education and physical activity and a process for measuring the effect on student health. Of course, policies are sometimes just words on paper. If your school has addressed your concerns in writing but not with action, use the policy as a starting point for an action plan.

3. Put together an action plan.
Once you have determined what types of changes will help make your school a healthier place, identify the people you need to work with to make it all happen. These may include:

  • School board members
  • School superintendent
  • Building principal
  • Food services director
  • Physical education teacher
  • School nurse
  • School safety officer or police department representative
  • School transportation director or bus company representative

Be aware that you may be limited in what you can do by funding, more pressing priorities, and obligations such as existing contracts. But try not to be discouraged if you run into roadblocks. Consider any obstacles as challenges to come up with new and different ways to accomplish your goals.

For example, if there’s no time in the school day to expand recess or lengthen gym period, look into establishing a program that encourages families to walk to school with their children in the morning. Or investigate the possibility of starting an after-school sports or movement class. Your group may be able to raise money for play structures or equipment that will entice children to get moving. Find out who in your system is responsible for ordering the food, and work with that person to make healthier selections. Or offer nutritious food and beverages for sale at the school store.

4. Educate families.
Spread the word about your group’s efforts to make your school a healthier place, and encourage parents to help their children practice healthy habits at home. You can do this by sending home tips on how to reduce screen time, have fun while staying physically fit, and eat more nutritiously.

Hold an open house where families can learn more about your group’s efforts. Invite school staff or community members to speak to parents. The school nurse can discuss ways to protect against flu, for example. Or if your group’s goal is to help keep children safe, ask the school safety officer or a representative of the local police force to talk about bicycle safety, seatbelt use, and other concerns. Or hold a health fair where you invite businesses or organizations to offer vision screening, flu shots, and other health and safety information.

Other ideas are to sponsor events and challenges such as TV Turnoff Week activities, a bicycle rodeo, or a road race. Use the event to kick off your group’s commitment to health and to keep the message alive throughout the year.

With an estimated 55 million students in the United States enrolled in prekindergarten through 12th grade, schools are ideally positioned to have a significant impact on children’s health. And as a school parent group leader, you can provide the gentle push that will ultimately help create a healthier society.