Sunday, July 05, 2020

About a year ago, I stopped at a Teaneck eatery to pick up some food and I noticed that a small group of girls was sharing a vape while sitting at an outdoor table. As a parent of three teens, a few thoughts crossed my mind: They look too young to purchase pods; I wonder where they got them. Do their parents know that they are vaping?

As a Certified Health Education Specialist, I thought: Should I talk to them about the risk factors of vaping? Am I doing a disservice to my profession if I don’t say anything?

And finally, as a former teenager: Would I have listened to a random stranger when I was their age?

I did not say anything to the girls at the time but I was still troubled by the conflict until I learned about the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) model, a joint effort by the Centers for Disease Control and ASCD, an education professional organization, to improve health literacy and academic success in schools.

In the past, health education and public health were operating in silos. The gym teacher, school nurse and psychological department would focus on physical and mental health, for example, while the teachers and administrators would focus on academics. The new WSCC model emphasizes the interdependence between these two factors. The new model represents the fact that there are “valuable academic and social outcomes that could result from a thorough Whole School and Community approach to health education.” In the short term, children will be safe, healthy and enjoy academic success. And in the long run, a whole systems approach to health education, can lead to healthier adults and healthier communities.

The WSCC framework is a flexible model that does not dictate which area needs improvement. Instead, it reminds us that the child is at the center, and for optimal academic, physical and socioemotional success, the child needs to be surrounded by five tenets: to be healthy, safe, challenged, supported and engaged. There is a band around these five tenets that describes the collaboration necessary among the child’s school, health and community sectors. In other words, if a child feels bullied (does not feel safe), then there is a good chance that his or her academics will be negatively affected. And by using resources from the school, home and even community, a solution can be suggested to help combat the problem.

For the WSCC model to succeed, a team is created from 10 different areas in the inner circle of the model, including members of the psychology departments, family members, classroom teachers, administrators, nursing staff, community members and even those responsible for the physical environment of the school. A health index is used to determine where improvement is needed. If the team would like to improve nutrition and school attendance, and reduce bullying, then a plan is created to encourage change across all levels of care.

A perfect example of the implementation of the WSCC model is Book Day, an amazing program that has been implemented at TABC and possibly other area high schools. A book is chosen by a team of students and the whole school is asked to read the same book. On a certain day, designated as Book Day, the whole school, some family and community members are invited to interpret the book from their personal and professional perspective. Last year, the whole school read the book “Spare Parts” by Joshua Davis. Over the course of the day, the students were able to learn about various concepts in the book from the 10 components of the WSCC model. This included presenting ideas from the health and nutritional perspective, the psychological perspective, the Judaic studies lens etc. (The athletic department had a fascinating presentation and the maintenance department even gave an auto body workshop presentation.) I believe that the lessons that the students gained will stay with them for years to come.

Using the success of this venture as an example, we can use this same Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child approach to encourage greater health literacy as a school, community and, of course, as a family. If it can be done for the annual Book Day, we can implement a systems change so that our children gain health literacy every day of the school year.

Let’s look at how to approach the vaping epidemic. Depending on a team’s objective, goals can be created to approach the issue with school, family and community involvement. It should also look at the problem from a policy perspective, environmental approach and a systems approach. For example, if the Wellness Team determines that vaping is a problem, some goals can include:

Presenting the Don’t Get Vaped In program to students and parents. (Health education/family engagement)

Students can be given leadership roles as peer educators to help encourage friends to stop or stay away from unhealthy habits. (Social and emotional climate)

Administrators can implement the multimedia program ASPIRE, an alternative program to suspension, if students are caught vaping. (Health education)

Local kosher food establishments could learn about the school efforts and place signs stating that this is a “no smoking/vaping” area. (Community involvement)

The psychological department can join the effort by instituting healthier alternatives when experiencing triggers that may cause someone to vape. (Counseling, psychological and social services)

The physical education department can an offer a yoga or other relaxation class on a regular basis or during peak stress periods. (Physical education and physical activity)

Teachers are “caught doing good”—model healthy behaviors and earn incentives. (Employee wellness)

Many schools have implemented the WSCC model and when they met certain standards, have earned the Healthier Generation’s National Healthy Schools Award. Admittedly, it is a process and doesn’t happen overnight. But health education should not be relegated to seventh- and eighth-grade curriculum and occasional health programs. Since research is showing the correlation between health literacy and academic and socioemotional success, it’s time to use the WSCC Model and create a team to approach health literacy—including problems such as vaping.

Research proves that presenting healthy behaviors to children and implementing healthy habits are easier than changing unhealthier behaviors in adulthood. Our health educators, parents, schools and the community need to work together to achieve optimum results. We are doing such a great job ensuring that our kids are challenged, supported and engaged. Let’s work as a team to ensure that a part of their academic success also includes the “healthy and safe” component for overall success.

Chaya Lebovic has a master’s in public health and is a Certified Health Educator and exercise specialist working for the Kessler Foundation, a non-profit that seeks to help improve the lives of those with cognitive and physical disabilities. Her passions include improving school health, maternal health and physical exercise for all. Feel free to reach out with any questions or comments.