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Linking Children’s Health to Education

"When my students come to class with health, social or mental issues such as homelessness, hunger, toothaches, they are often not able to pay attention or participate in a meaningful way. Many of their issues rightly take precedence over their educational needs. I have seen students flourish academically soon after their other immediate and important needs are addressed." —Ronnie Moshi

photo by Lauren Long   The AFT puts children’s education and health at the center of all we do. Because students’ wellness affects their ability to perform in school, it is vital that information about illnesses affecting kids is readily available. Below you’ll find useful resources in several areas where health affects learning.


Dental Health | Mental Health | Vision | Hunger/Nutrition | Obesity
Eating Disorders | Chronic Illnesses

Dental Health

"If [students] are nursing a toothache, you can believe their mind is on the pain not the teacher or learning." —Veronica Thibideaux

Tooth decay affects American kids more than any other chronic infectious disease. Untreated tooth decay causes pain and infections that may lead to problems eating, speaking, playing or learning.

The good news is that tooth decay and other oral diseases are preventable. The combination of dental sealants and fluoride has the potential to nearly eliminate tooth decay in school-age children.

Mental Health

"Those with mental health issues such as bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia can have problems with memory, concentration and task completion…"  —Christine Martin

Mental health disorders in children and adolescents are caused by biology, environment or both. Examples of biological factors include genetics, chemical imbalances in the body and damage to the central nervous system, such as a head injury. Many environmental factors also can affect mental health, including exposure to violence, extreme stress and the loss of a loved one.

  • Mental Health America posts fact sheets about mental health issues sorted by audience, issue and treatment.
  • The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry produced a Spanish and English version of their “Facts for Families.” Choose your preferred language and download dozens of facts sheets on topics ranging from how to speak to children about mental illness to information about bipolar disease.


“My niece did poorly in school and hated to read until vision and hearing problems were discovered and treated. Now she’s an honor student.” — Karen Meyer

Vision and learning are intimately connected. Experts say that roughly 80 percent of what a child learns in school is presented visually, so, good vision is essential for students to reach their potential. Research has shown one in four children ages 5 to 14 are at risk for undetected vision problems.

The AFT, along with several other organizations including the U.S. Department of Education, the American Public Health Association, and the National Head Start Association, signed a joint statement to support comprehensive eye exams for school‐aged children to address children’s vision and eye health issues and as a key element of ensuring school readiness in American children.


"The mind and body needs nutrients to work properly and when one or both of those ingredients is missing, then success is limited." —Paula Talese

Nearly 17 million children in America—that’s almost one in four—face hunger. It’s likely that these children will endure lifelong consequences from their limited access to nutritious food. Hunger impairs health in significant and long-lasting ways, including physical and mental development.


"Lack of high-quality food markets in neighborhoods forces [children] to survive on cheap processed food ... Few have any inkling of how their diets can affect their mood."  —Dianne Perkins

Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled, and today, nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese. One-third of all children born in 2000 or later will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lives; many others will face chronic obesity-related health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and asthma.

  • The organization Action for Healthy Kids gives facts on childhood obesity.
  • Michelle Obama’s childhood obesity initiative entitled “Let’s Move” has a comprehensive website on childhood obesity facts; it reviews good nutrition and the benefits of staying active.
  • Life 123 lists the physical, psychological and social effects of obesity in children.
  • The online publication, Family Education, speaks about the threat of obesity in children and provides tips for parents to help stave off this threat..

Eating Disorders

"Students with eating disorders … suffer from self-esteem issues." —Marion Wallace

Many kids, particularly teens, are self-conscious about how they look. This is especially true when they are going through puberty and undergo dramatic physical changes and face new social pressures.

Unfortunately, for a growing proportion of kids and teens, that concern may grow into an obsession that can become an eating disorder. Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa cause dramatic weight fluctuation and interfere with normal life and damage vital body functions.

  • The University of Michigan’s Health System has a fact sheet about all types of eating disorders, how to encourage healthy eating, and what to do if you or someone you know has an eating disorder.
  • Kids Health website gives tips for parents on how to help prevent eating disorders in children.
  • Eating Disorder Hope has articles and resources for parents of children overcoming eating disorders.

Chronic Illnesses


"I have students who miss many days of school because of asthma, and obviously loss of school time will be detrimental to learning." —Thei Johnson Cherry

Asthma is a respiratory disorder, often of allergic origin, characterized by difficulty in breathing, wheezing, and a sense of constriction in the chest.


Diabetes is a disorder of carbohydrate metabolism, usually occurring in genetically predisposed individuals, characterized by inadequate production or use of insulin and resulting in excessive amounts of glucose in the blood and urine, excessive thirst, weight loss, and in some cases progressive destruction of small blood vessels leading to such complications as infections.

  • The Children with Diabetes website supplies a list of things parents/caregivers of diabetic children to do before school begins.
  • The National Diabetes Institute in partnership with the National Institute of Health has a comprehensive website on ways to lower the risk of diabetes.


Seizures are the physical manifestations (as convulsions, sensory disturbances, or loss of consciousness) resulting from abnormal electrical discharges in the brain (as in epilepsy).

  • The Epilepsy Foundation educates parents and educators on seizures and their affects on education.

Sickle Cell Anemia

Sickle Cell Anemia is a chronic hereditary blood disease, occurring primarily among Africans or persons of African descent, in which abnormal hemoglobin causes red blood cells to become sickle-shaped and nonfunctional, characterized by enlarged spleen, chronic anemia, lethargy, weakness, joint pain, and blood clot formation.

The Washington State Department of Health provides general information about sickle cell and how to care for a child with the disease.

The National Institute on Health website gives a comprehensive overview on sickle cell disease.

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