Wellness experts swear by the power of camaraderie and incentives — and technology — in getting adults to adopt healthy behaviors.
So this year, the Westside Community Schools decided to extend the online wellness program the district has long offered to teachers and staff to eighth-graders in the hopes that it will catch on with them, too.
The schools were commended during a recent National Healthy Schools Forum in Little Rock, Ark. The forum and the Healthy Schools Program are part of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a childhood obesity prevention program founded by the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation.
The schools — Ezra Millard Elementary, Holling Heights Elementary, Neihardt Elementary, Beadle Middle, Kiewit Middle, Millard North Middle and Russell Middle — have achieved Bronze status in seven wellness categories, indicating a comprehensive effort to provide a healthy school environment.
The changes they have made include adding morning walking clubs, building in classroom activity breaks and emphasizing smoothies and other healthy snacks.
— Julie Anderson
Nearly all of Westside Middle School's eighth-graders have signed up for at least one of the four monthlong programs the district is offering as a pilot effort. About two-thirds of the district's employees participate in the adult program.
That program, by all accounts, is a good one. Westside last year became the first school district in the country — and one of 37 workplaces nationwide — to win the Wellness Council of America's highest workplace wellness award.
“We have found such success with our adult program, we wanted to do this with the students,” said Melissa Jackson, the middle school's health teacher and a member of the district's wellness committee.
Eighth-graders were a logical choice, since they all pass through Jackson's classroom. And all have laptops provided by the district.
Each of the four programs under Warrior Wellness focuses on a different theme tailored to middle schoolers. The first, which began recently, is Kindness Matters. Participants get an email every weekday with a motivational message encouraging them to complete a random act of kindness. Each day they do, they check a box on the online tracking system. Kindness is considered important to students' social and emotional health.
“We're trying to incorporate all aspects of health,” Jackson said.
Robert Lawson, 13, said he has already met some new people while giving compliments in the halls as part of his acts of kindness. The program backs up what the students are learning in health class about the importance of relationships to overall health.
“It's good to help people out, and it's good to give back to the community,” he said.
Kendall Brekke, also 13, said she thinks the program will help the school. A couple of people unexpectedly held doors open for her the other day.
“It's all about the little things,” she said.
Other themes focus on hygiene, unplugging from electronics for at least an hour a day and an around-the-world fitness challenge, which includes eating three to five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, sleeping six to nine hours a night and exercising at least 30 minutes a day.
While more and more schools in Nebraska and Iowa are adding things like walking clubs, salad bars and classroom activity breaks, this program goes beyond the school day and requires students to take action — and record it — on their own.
Engaging students helps create a culture of health and wellness within schools, said Julane Hill, director of coordinated school health for the Nebraska Department of Education. Research indicates that healthier kids are better students. The Nebraska Board of Education in 2010 adopted a policy encouraging school districts to adopt comprehensive plans that would create a healthy culture.
Stephanie Hornung, another Westside wellness committee member, said moving the activities outside school walls also promotes wellness at home.
“With the kids, we're teaching lifetime wellness habits and making them a part of their lifestyle,” said Hornung, principal at Loveland Elementary.
To set up the online program for eighth-graders, Westside contacted Aaron Hardy of Integrated Health and Wellness, who had set up the district's adult program. His firm now manages the website and other behind-the-scenes pieces of the wellness program offered by the Educators Health Alliance. The majority of Nebraska school districts are insured through the alliance. Wellness program participants this month are encouraged to eat a daily salad.
Hardy offered to set up a pilot program for free. District officials said they don't know what the costs might be down the road but will re-evaluate after the first year.
Hardy said he has never before seen such a high participation rate. His firm also provides programs for companies such as Cessna in Wichita and Blue Cross Blue Shield in Massachusetts.
“The thing that's so exciting about this Warrior Wellness is we've never done anything for kids,” he said.
Hardy said there are many ways to do wellness programs. He has found it works best to make it simple and provide consistent programming that allows lots of people to join in.
“The whole point of wellness program is to create and maintain a culture of wellness,” he said. “And the only way to do that is to get as many people doing it at the same time as possible.”
The program, like the adult versions, offers small incentives. Hornung said they tend to boost participation.
All participants in the eighth-grade effort got string bags, a bottle of water and a package of fruit snacks.
Jackson recruited eight-graders to affix stickers with the words “Chew on This ... Kindness Does Matter” to packs of gum for participants in the kindness program. They also tied tags to bottles of root beer to give to teachers and staff, another act of kindness.
When the students finished, Jackson served root beer floats. “I can be kind, too,” she told the crew of volunteers.
Of the four programs, the kindness, hygiene and around-the-world themes have all drawn about 85 percent participation. The lowest sign-up rate, 68 percent, was for unplugging from electronics, which will come in February.
The committee also is considering expanding the program, possibly starting with one elementary school next year.
“We're already thinking about how we can make it grow,” Hornung said.