Valley Voices

Dr. Ken Bird: Why failing in school can make you sick

Education is the keystone to well-being, equity and the realization of full potential which is public health.

Most, if not all, public health problems can be traced back to root causes that include inadequate education. Even when public health challenges are highly rooted in poverty, inequitable power balances, and discrimination, education plays a significant role in the outcome.

Inadequate education in the form of incomplete knowledge, poor life-skill preparation, or insufficient self-respect and sensitivity will lead to a deficiency in public health at some level.

Educational attainment and health are nearly impossible to separate. Health knowledge and behaviors, employment and income, and social and psychological factors contribute to both cause and effect with regards to health outcomes. This interrelated dynamic is often transferred from parent to child in a perpetuating cycle resulting in ever worsening health outcomes.

What measures can we take to assure the educational foundation that leads to the maximal well-being and human potential of the entire community?

▪  Women must be healthy, well supported, and well informed far prior to pregnancy, and they must be connected to comprehensive prenatal care both early and throughout their pregnancy to assure optimal fetal development and full-term gestation. This sets the stage for a lifetime of good health, effective learning and subsequent well-being.

▪  There should be frequent daily communication from adults for all infants. Talk to them. Read to them. Sing to them. The fewer words children hear and learn, the more likely they are to experience an achievement gap. This gap persists through the preschool and kindergarten years and has a life-long impact on health and well-being.

▪  Quality preschool or the in-home equivalent should be available for all children. Research shows that development of the neural systems involved in cognitive, emotional, neuroendocrine, and neuroimmune functions have a profound correlation to early stimulation and positive experiences. These early experiences also modify an individual’s response to stress throughout life. Progressive introduction of elemental education should begin at a few months of age and regular assessment should be made to insure developmental and cognitive milestones are met prior to a child’s entering kindergarten.

▪  Upon entering kindergarten, every student should experience high quality K-12 education. For life-long skills that support healthy behaviors, academic subjects must promote positive self-esteem and community values as well as give students opportunities to learn and practice practical life skills, decision-making, and positive interpersonal relations. Additionally, at all grade levels, students should receive information on proper nutrition, the benefits of physical activity, and illness prevention.

▪  It should be the goal that every student receive a high school diploma. Many factors impact high school graduation rates. Any mental health, social-emotional, economic, or physical difficulty which could lead to poorly adaptive behavior, failure to thrive in school, and increased risk for “dropping out” must be identified early for intervention.

▪  School-based health clinics that are easily accessible to all students and family members have proven beneficial for early intervention of health and mental health-related issues. Individually tailored / case-managed education in close collaboration with family would eliminate “dropping out” of school. Trauma-informed and restorative practices can eliminate the need for expulsion and also significantly reduce suspensions.

The numerous changes that must be implemented and sustained to ensure an education for all our children and youth, and that sets the stage for success and health, cannot be accomplished by schools alone. Each task will involve the collective efforts and will of our entire community. Parents must be engaged and make their child’s success a priority. Health, mental health and social aid agencies, in both public and private sectors, must closely collaborate with schools, with each other, and with centers for higher education, law enforcement, and the judicial system to ensure every student graduates from high school with the knowledge and skills required for a lifetime of health and well-being.

I was excited to be part of the recent Fresno GradNation 2015 Summit Oct. 20. Input received from all sectors of our community on how to continue improving graduation rates throughout Fresno County will be the first of many steps in further improving the overall health of our community.

Ken Bird, M.D., M.P.H. is Fresno County Health Officer, Fresno County Department of Public Health.