The paper (which is free to download) looks at the data for the following risky behaviours and educational outcomes:
- tobacco use;
- alcohol and other drug use;
- sexual behaviours contributing to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases;
- inadequate physical activity; and
- unhealthy dietary behaviours.
For all six health-risk behaviors, 96.6% of the studies reported statistically significant inverse relationships between health-risk behaviors and academic achievement.
What they can’t say is whether the relationships are causal but what they argue is that the data is consistent with there being a mutually reinforcing relationship. So kids who start doing badly at school are more at risk of substance misuse behaviours, which makes them less likely to do well at school and so on.
This leads the authors to argue:
The results of this review suggest that improving health and increasing academic achievement of children and youth in the U.S. need to be viewed as a composite goal rather than separate goals that are responsibilities of different agencies. Furthermore, the results of this review suggest that the practice of providing programs that focus exclusively on school performance, health behavior, or health care need to be jointly evaluated by agencies responsible for children and youth.
The review’s authors point to the US National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy which calls for action to:
- Promote federal, state, and district policies to provide annual comprehensive school health education for all K–12 students
- Promote federal, state, and county policies to provide health education in preschools and Early Head Start programs
- Implement proven strategies to help all students graduate with a regular diploma in 4 years
- Implement proven strategies to help all students develop proficient reading and math skills
From where I sit the same actions would be appropriate here in the UK.
On a positive note I think there are some signs that a more coherent approach is possible. For example the development of overlapping What Works centres (NICE, EEF, EIF), the interest in evidence based education (see also IEE), and a more visible focus on public health which includes wider outcomes in its core objectives.
Increasingly (and perhaps rightly) those of us who are focused on improving the health outcomes for young people are asked to justify the time for interventions not only in terms of the health benefits that might accrue but also in terms of improving academic outcomes too. So, for example, the Healthy Minds approach that we heard about at a recent Mentor seminar (see below) will only be a success if it not only improves the health and well-being of students (compared to a control group) but also is able to show an impact on the educational outcomes.
But my fear is that many of these actions are small-scale and carried out in the face of political indifference or scepticism to health education, and they’re being done at a time when much of the support young people’s drug and alcohol services is subject to cuts.