Study links health, academic achievement

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Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

Helping kids do better in school might be as easy as removing televisions from the bedroom, according to a collaboration between Yale researchers and New Haven Public Schools.

The study revealed unexpectedly strong ties between students’ health habits and academic performance. The research was published last month in the Journal of School Health, and is already helping educators and policy makers implement programs to improve their students’ performance, according to Catherine McCaslin, a study co-author and director of research, assessment and student information at the New Haven Public Schools.

“The most important finding for New Haven Public Schools is the additive effect of health behavior and academic achievement,” she said. “The more healthy behaviors a student has, the higher the academic achievement.”

While prior evidence linked academic achievement with health, the researchers wanted to pinpoint the set of behaviors that influence scholastic achievement.

In the study, the team assessed overall health by measuring 14 factors, ranging from measures of physical health like body mass index to descriptions of family environment, such as having family meals. Connecting academic achievement to overall health, instead of to individual factors, provides a more complete perspective of risk behavior, said Marlene Schwartz, study co-author and director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

The researchers measured academic performance through standardized Connecticut state tests administered to fifth and sixth graders from 12 local New Haven public schools. The team worked with local students through the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement (CARE), an initiative started in 2007 to connect Yale public health researchers with New Haven.

“Our commitment is to bring evidence to action,” said Jeanette Ickovics, a professor of public health, director of CARE and senior author of the study. “It’s our responsibility at Yale to work closely with our neighbors in New Haven.”

While Ickovics said the researchers expected good health to predict academic success, they were surprised by how strong the effect was. The health behavior with the largest impact on academic performance was whether there was a television in the student’s bedroom: Those without a television were more than twice as likely to achieve target scores in reading, writing and math.

The study also revealed that students with the most healthy habits were 2.2 times more likely to reach target scores, regardless of their ethnicity, sex or socioeconomic background.

“That’s not just statistically significant, it’s socially meaningful,” Ickovics said.

Ickovics said she hopes to follow up on this correlational finding by both investigating the mechanism connecting health and achievement and determining the feasibility of intervention. For instance, she said researchers could try removing televisions from children’s rooms and observing whether academic improvement followed.

Health factors have often been linked to improved concentration and cognitive focus; Ickovics said the team wants to understand whether these mechanisms underlie the correlation between health and academic performance.

For the school district, the study has already informed curriculum and policy decisions, said Sue Peters, director of coordinated school health for New Haven Public Schools and study co-author. She said New Haven is rolling out comprehensive K-12 health education over the next three years, and the results of the study are convincing people that such programs are important.

“Making the link between health and academic achievement isn’t always obvious,” she said. “This data helps us speak with educators in a concrete way about the importance of health promotion.”

The New Haven Public Schools serve 21,500 students.

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