Healthful lessons

Pragya Mathur Kumar

Scene One: As we converged into the classroom for the PTM, my first grader excitedly hugged another little boy and told me with the innocence that envelops new earthlings: “Ma, this is that friend I told you about. He always wants to eat other people’s tiffins, but nobody wants his.” The candor brought spontaneous laughter though the boy’s mother looked a little sheepish. The buddy grinned through a couple of missing teeth, enjoying the special introduction. Laughing nervously, his mother tried to get to the bottom of things and discovered: it was true, her little one indeed ate other children’s tiffins while his own remained intact as nobody wanted it. All because: they didn’t like the “green, green puris” he brought frequently. So the tiffin breaks were one-way affairs for him. An attempt to give nutrition through ‘paalak puris’ gone haywire! A health conscious mother trying to ensure “health” reigns supreme even in school time snack…fails miserably.

The abandoned ‘green, green puris’ are a reflection of how challenging it is to instill healthy habits among students. What can parents and teachers do to sow the seeds of healthy behaviour? What strategies can schools adopt to achieve health goals?

Elevating physical and mental wellbeing as a shared goal in schools recognizes its fundamental importance in the lives of students. This will require the creation of a learning environment that promotes and supports student wellbeing by focusing on the bigger picture – a combination of cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development. Research* demonstrates that successful education cannot happen in a piecemeal fashion and requires an integrated approach that can help children develop to their full potential. What is needed is a coordinated effort by parents and teachers to achieve the ‘Sampoorna Swasthya’ goal.

Photos: Sakti Prasanna Mohanthy
Courtesy: DAV Public School, Pokhariput

A substantial number of children in the age group of 2 to 17 years in India are suffering from health problems ranging from abnormal BMI and vision, dental, ear, nose and throat (ENT), and hygiene related issues,according to a report released by Jarma Wellness, a health consultancy firm. Around 25.5 per cent children had abnormal vision, 30.4 per cent of all students screened had abnormal BMI, over 50 per cent of all students were found to have dental issues and close to 27 per cent students had cavities. The report also shows a significant jump from 16 per cent to 23 per cent students in the overweight and obese category as the child moves from pre-primary to primary grades and goes up to 26 per cent in higher secondary. Undetected vision problems at young age have a far-reaching impact on a child, not just on the eyesight but also on the mental wellbeing of the child. “Taking care of one’s health, hygiene, and safety is perhaps the most important life skill that can be inculcated among the student population and thus it is one of the key areas in which schools must invest time and resources. Many health problems, especially lifestyle diseases, are preventable and treatable, and tackling them will also bring huge social and economic benefits for India,” says Nimish Thaker, co-founder, Jarma Wellness.

Healthy students are better prepared to learn, and education is a key determinant of health. It is important to educate children early in life about their health and the right behaviours so that they can lead a healthy life, realize their full potential and build strong communities. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank (WB) have published an inter-agency framework called FRESH – an acronym for Focusing Resources on Effective School Health. The core areas suggest that school health services need to focus on school health policies: water, sanitation and the environment, skills-based health education, school-based health, and nutrition services. The supporting strategies include effective partnerships between the education and health sectors, community partnership and student participation. National Health Policy (NHP) 2017 also envisages the attainment of the highest possible level of health and wellbeing for all ages, through preventive and promotive health care. The policy lays greater emphasis on investment in school health by incorporating health education as part of the curriculum, promoting hygiene and healthy practices within the school environs.

Healthy body, healthy mind. The axiom has stood the test of time and remains as relevant today as in the past. Playing sports develops self-discipline, dedication, determination, and diligence, which impacts students’ mind-body relationship. These factors are important aspects of a student’s life, be it at the physical or psychological level. Health and education are strongly connected. Healthy children achieve better results at school, which in turn are associated with better quality of life. Recognizing schools as a useful platform, the Government of India has launched the “School Health Program” under Ayushman Bharat to promote health and prevent diseases.

Setting up a positive and healthy school environment plays an important role in improving the health, wellbeing, and overall academic achievement of students. Schools present the ideal ecosystem for students to imbibe from peers and learn from role models. Students can be effective advocates for creating a healthy society and can become change agents for community health initiatives. Children see, children do. Teachers must be good role models and health and wellness ambassadors. Proactive and self-motivated teachers with good communication skills and ability to connect with students should actively engage students in the pursuit of mental and physical wellbeing. Attitudinal change is a key factor in building a health-focused eco system in educational institutions.

Scene Two: “Your son is not serious about his studies. He’s been missing classes and may fall short of attendance this term. Every alternate day, he’s not in class even though he’s in school. And on other days, he’s not even in school! How will he complete the syllabus for the term exams? I’m surprised he’s scoring well in the periodic tests though.” As the teacher goes on and on about poor attendance, she has no interest in knowing the bigger picture. That the student is a state/national level player and doing exceptionally well in various tournaments. That his time management skills and ability to focus (developed through the rigor of sports training) help him cope with academics. Unfortunately, kheloge koodoge hoge kharaab, padhoge likhoge banoge nawab is an age-old saying that still has a home in the minds of educators and parents. It is vital to recognize sports as a powerful tool in making students physically and mentally strong. Schools must adopt the new perspective…”Khelega India, toh Khilega India”.

Scene Three: ‘We’re witnessing a drastic change in her behaviour. Her sleep pattern is erratic, there’s a dramatic decline in her academic performance. She’s been losing weight, has mood swings, talks about suicide, complains of headaches, stomach aches, etc., without physical causes, has frequent temper tantrums, and is a poor shadow of her cheerful self. She hardly talks to us and we’re wondering if there’s something happening at school that we should know.” While hapless parents expect teachers to help with the behavioural symptoms of a troubled mind, there is often a wide gap between expectations and reality. Both educators and parents play a vital role in promoting mental health and wellbeing, identifying and responding to emerging mental illnesses in children and adolescents. However, there is a lack of relevant education, training, and/or ongoing support needed to respond in the classroom or at home. Strategies to create a healthy ecosystem include: educating staff, parents, and students about symptoms of and help for mental health problems, promoting social and emotional competency-building efforts, providing training to build resilience, offering workshops on life skills, ensuring a positive, safe school environment, reinforcing positive behaviours and providing opportunities for decision-making, collaboration, and cooperation among students. Teachers can have some conversations in the classroom that do away with the negativity associated with mental health concerns. Students must be encouraged to be honest with themselves and talk to a counsellor, parent, or trusted adult because poor mental health can impact a person’s physical health, and it brings about a slew of challenges that students shouldn’t have to face alone. With reference to building healthy minds, teachers must support the mental health of all students in their classroom and not just individual students who may exhibit behavioural issues.

Sampoorna Swasthya strategies

While school-based mental health programs can focus on promoting mental wellness, preventing mental health problems, and providing treatment, parents must be encouraged to share and discuss concerns with teachers in open forums. To promote a healthy social and emotional development of all children and youth, it is important to educate parents and teachers about the warning signs of mental health problems. Severe mood swings or drastic changes in a student’s behaviour or personality are red flags that require attention. Teachers must be trained to recognize that each student will have different experiences and reactions, to establish and maintain routines and a calm classroom, to provide reassurance that school is a safe place to be, to support social skills by including social and emotional learning in the classroom, to build connectedness to the school, to talk about mental health and seek help, to notice any changes in mood, behaviour, and presentation, to inquire-listen-refer or report-access support on campus. As illustrated in the above figure, there are several actionable ideas that teachers can use to help students be mentally and physically strong. With some out-of-the-box thinking, sprinkling health-related information into everyday lessons could create awareness and acceptance among students about the importance of overall wellbeing and the role it plays in life.

Additionally, to inculcate an attitude of responsibility with reference to hygiene, involving students in ‘Clean the Classroom’ activities can build a bridge that transfers the thought process to other areas of the student’s life. By sharing stories about habits of successful people, teachers can inspire students to develop life skills that promote physical as well as mental strength. Teachers must promote self-care habits by being good role models: staying active, taking good care of themselves, and encouraging students to make healthy choices. Teachers must communicate that in order to achieve their life goals, students must invest in healthy habits. It is important for teachers to convey that unhealthy students tend to struggle more personally, academically, socially, mentally, and physically, making it harder for them to feel a sense of purpose, fulfillment, and accomplishment in several areas of their lives. Food habits are usually harder to change and will require creative thinking on the part of the teacher. A taste test when studying the taste buds as part of a science unit or learning about certain foods that people ate during a particular era may encourage students to be receptive to healthy foods. Also, teachers must encourage physical activity. One of the best ways to encourage students to stay physically active is to give them opportunities to do so in class and also participate actively in sports. Parents, teachers, and students must work together in pursuit of physical and mental growth…. Awake, arise, and stop not till the goal of Sampoorna Swasthya is reached!


The author is a psychologist and trainer at Arunima Ankuran an initiative for positive social change through self-development. She can be reached at

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