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Creating healthy, bully-free schools a challenge

CHRISTAN M. THOMAS • May 5, 2007 at 11:57 AM

With all the distractions of society at large - unhealthy eating, lack of exercise, health problems, bullying - making their way into the classroom, creating a truly healthy environment in schools can be a challenge.

"I know people have said to me ‘That's not in Kingsport. That's not in Bristol. That's not in Johnson City,'" said Kingsport City Schools Nursing Supervisor Vicki Johnston. "But let me tell you, we are seeing these things in our schools."

Johnston along with University of Tennessee Extension Agent Shirlene Booker and Mitchell County (N.C.) Schools Assistant Superintendent Rick Spurling tackled the subject of healthy schools Wednesday during the "Shaping Up for the Future" health care conference held in Kingsport.

Johnston and Booker both addressed increased health problems in schools and what is being done to combat childhood obesity.

In addition to weight problems, Johnston said schools across the region are seeing increased cases of high blood pressure, joint pain, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, gall bladder problems, poor nutrition, sleep disorders, allergies, asthma, cancer, heart disease, balance problems and behavior issues, all of which are hitting as young as elementary school. These issues, Johnston said, are being perpetuated by lifestyle choices, family history and socioeconomic challenges.

In some cases, she said, the school nurse is the only health care a child has access to.

"We're seeing an increase in the number of procedures that we are doing in our school systems ... increase in behavior medications, increase in inhalers, increase in breathing machines," Johnston said. "At times, the school nurse is providing the only health care for these children."

Preventative measures can go a long way in creating healthy children and healthy schools. The basic principles apply in both the classroom and the home - better nutrition and increased physical activity.

"The emphasis of ‘Tennessee Shapes Up' (a program for promoting good health) is on eating less, moving more and tuning in to what our bodies are saying," Booker said.

A curriculum created by Tennessee Extension called "Power U" is just one way Booker said schools can help instill these principles in students. Others include adding physical activity in creative ways throughout the day; incorporating whole grains, removing fryers, offering fresh fruits and vegetables, etc., in school lunch; offering healthful snacks; and educating parents on living a healthy lifestyle.

In addition to health, schools must also foster a safe environment for learning by creating a bully-free zone, Spurling said. Both can be achieved by personal attention and planning.

"We can make a change," Spurling said. "I think this is the bottom line, we have to (create) some personal relationships. ... We have got to get kids to think they are in a safe place when they come to school."

For more information on Power U visit http://tnshapesup.tennessee.edu/poweru.htm.

For more information on creating a bully-free school visit www.bullyfreezone.info.

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