Making Your Classroom a Model of Health

By Brian P. Gatens

One of our most important (and most overlooked) responsibilities as teachers is to model healthy habits for our students. Of course we need to have “healthy” academic and study habits, but it’s also important to take care of ourselves physically and set the same example for young people. Remember what Ted Sizer always said: “The children are watching.” 

Help students develop healthy habits that last a lifetimeAnd aside from the personal benefit of being healthy, there is the direct correlation between the health of your students and their ability to complete their assignments. With that in mind, think about these suggestions for developing a healthy classroom: 

Take a Health Assessment

Don’t miss a chance to discuss healthy nutrition, behavior and sleep habits and with your students. You could, for instance, have them complete an age-appropriate health assessment and share the results with their parents. On that note, you can also create a “health incentive” in your class. Perhaps offer a homework-free night if the students complete a weekly food log or track their sleep patterns. One popular activity — more with the parents than students — is to have them spend less time in front of screens (TVs, smartphones and computers).

Teach and Model Work/Life Balance

In today’s hyperconnected world, teaching your students to step away from technology to spend time alone is a healthy thing to do. Studies have shown that always being “on” isn’t a good thing and that time spent away from stimulation enables the mind to rest and perhaps even wander into original thoughts. Encourage your students to do this and even consider modeling it for them. Turn your phone/computer/tablet off on a Friday night and stay unplugged till Monday morning. That might be challenging, but it can send a strong message to your students. 

Bring in Healthy Foods

We all know of the connection between nutrition, health and the ability to learn. Work with your parent volunteers to bring healthy foods and snacks into the classroom. Many schools stop with the morning snack after the early grades, but I encourage you to allow your students to munch away on good food choices whenever they want. Growing bodies need regular calories to keep developing. I strongly suggest, however, drawing the line at unhealthy and processed foods. 

Take the Kids Outside

If your curriculum allows it, find some time to bring your classes outside to play in the sunshine. Even if it’s cold, bundle them up and get them outside for some fresh air. If your school has no fresh air and open fields, consider having a field trip to a local park for a day of outdoor games, healthy food and good fun. Our students definitely struggle from a “nature deficit” and getting them out into the open is good for them (and you!).

Do Some Research

My research for this post came across the work of Esther Sternberg and her research into the connection between mind-body interactions, stress and healing. Her easily accessible and readable work offers teachers excellent insight into how they can both care for themselves and their students. Look for her podcast on Krista Tippett’s “On Being” radio show

An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is superintendent/principal at Norwood Public School in Norwood, N.J. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal and now superintendent/principal.


Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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