As primary beneficiaries of a school-wide approach to wellness, young people are critical partners. [vi] Their voices need to be heard and active across design, implementation, delivery, and evaluation of school-wide wellness efforts. When youth champion wellness in their schools, they can both advocate the need and create demand for access to better health care, comprehensive support services, healthy food options, and safer spaces in their communities. SBHCs that incorporate youth perspectives exhibit a model health care system that values collective input, and the holistic success of children and adolescents.
Engage youth as partners in school-wide wellness work to:
- Foster student leaders and give them more equity (and ownership) in decisions about their wellness.
- Gain insight to the social determinants of health or root causes of health disparities or poor health outcomes youth face, as well as meaningful actions to get towards the conditions to achieve school-wide wellness.
- Receive feedback on the services, programs, and policies youth want, need, and expect.
- Empower youth to build their practical skills, make healthier decisions, share their experiences and opinions on health and wellness, and take leadership in their schools and communities.
1. Create an environment where youth can share their opinions, values, and concerns throughout the school wellness design, implementation, and evaluation process.
- Define your shared goals, responsibilities, accountabilities, and resources.
- Create/formalize a Youth Advisory Council (YAC), if no such group exists. YACs empower student leaders through creative problem solving. They are crucial for identifying student concerns in the school environment, designing youth-led strategies to address them, and representing the student body. Encourage students of all racial backgrounds, genders, and sexual identities to participate.
- Conduct school-wide needs assessments, student surveys, and focus groups, so students can identify their top concerns and priorities within their environment. Engaging youth in this way can uncover health inequities across diverse genders, race, and sexual identities, and identify culturally competent approaches for each affinity group.
- Create student leadership and volunteer positions wherever possible. Invite students to sit on your wellness team, appoint student groups, leads, or ambassadors to lead school wellness programs and activities like health fairs, cooking demonstrations, and fun runs. By serving as peer health educators and mentors, and leading issue-specific task forces, youth can encourage broader participation in school-wide wellness efforts, model healthy behaviors for their peers, and serve as positive and approachable role models for younger students.
- Define your shared goals, responsibilities, accountabilities, and resources.
- Collaborate with student leaders to design health promotion messages and share these messages with their peers. Promote activities through youth-friendly communication channels such as school social media, newsletters, and P.A. announcements.
- Actively seek feedback from students after each school wellness program/activity.
- Ask youth to collect the data, too. They can explain to their peers the data collection process, the importance of collecting data, and how the data will be used. They can also administer the assessments.
- Encourage youth participatory research projects, where youth build on their personal interests to design an inquiry-based exploration of their communities. Youth research projects require a lot of training and support but are an amazing youth advocacy tool, powerful for gaining stakeholder support.
- Encourage young people to share personal stories, school experiences, and details about their home life with trusted health care professionals and school personnel. Young people have the potential to create a school-wide shift in norms, priorities, policies, and supports. For example, students at a Hallways to Health site who shared stories of harassment and bullying in closed spaces (i.e. bathrooms) raised awareness and emboldened the school and SBHC staff to amend student safety policies.
- Where possible, offer incentives to foster student participation in school-wide wellness efforts. Incentives should be appealing to youth–offer community service hours, gift cards or other giveaways, and host awards ceremonies to recognize student participants and leaders.
2. Inspire youth to play an active and direct role in school wellness efforts through participation in school health programs, services, and advocacy efforts.
- Youth can boost access to healthier food options by cultivating school gardens, leading school food pantry distributions, and advocating to school staff and school board members for extended school breakfast periods.
- Young people can learn how to build healthy relationships with peers, develop coping and conflict resolution skills, and strengthen their critical thinking and decision-making skills by attending and facilitating healing circles and other peer support groups.
- Students can participate in wellness events such as fitness clubs, yoga, and mindfulness courses to get active, and learn to breathe. Participating in wellness programs expands student awareness of SBHCs, and encourages them to promote SBHC services to other students through referrals.
- Youth can lead issue-focused awareness campaigns around the school and neighborhood to promote wellness.
Stories from the Field
Students on the John F. Kennedy High School, Richmond, CA Youth Advisory Committee (YAC) advocated for additional resources and policy changes in their schools and neighborhoods to address food insecurity and access to drinkable water. Empowered by the health center’s staff, YAC members secured funding for a hydration station and water bottles in the health center from city officials. The youth also applied for a grant from Jamba Juice to fund and install another water station for the health center. Students appealed to the Principal, and he committed to fund replacement water bottles.
The youth also led a community-based participatory research project assessing food offerings at local corner stores. They lobbied corner storeowners to carry more fruit and nutritious snack offerings, and encouraged them to prominently display the healthier options. To ensure their peers could access healthy foods, the YAC led a monthly free food distribution and advocated to school administrators to continue offering a second chance breakfast initiative.
After learning about the suicide of a classmate, Milwaukie High School students, Milwaukie, OR demanded more resources and attention for social-emotional wellbeing and encouraged the school wellness team to establish a mental health task force. The task force aimed to build mental health literacy and to create a supportive, inclusive, and stigma-free school environment. Youth advisory council (YAC) members, SBHC staff, school counselors, school administrators, teachers, and the county suicide prevention coordinator all served on the mental health task force.
The task force selected Sources of Strength, a population-based suicide prevention program, to teach students help seeking behaviors and promote fostering connections with peers and caring adults. The task force identified ten adult advisors and fifty youth to lead the Sources of Strength Program. To enhance the task force efforts, the YAC conducted a Youth Participatory Action Research project investigating stress in the student body and then created a Photo Voice project to visually represent the school data on mental health trends and resources. Milwaukie’s students demanded additional attention, resources, and focus on adolescent mental health in the school, and the school wellness team responded to meet the student needs.
At Washington Middle School, Seattle, WA, the school administration converted a traditional bathroom to be gender-neutral. However, students shared at a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) meeting that harassment and bullying increased when students used the bathroom. Because of the students’ advocacy, the GSA’s faculty advisor brought this issue to the school administration and teachers. Together, they developed a plan to monitor the gender-neutral bathrooms. Harassment and bullying decreased, and students reported feeling safer and more comfortable using the gender neutral the restroom.
[vi]Moore S, Hurt K, Shore A. Lead the Way: Engaging Youth in Health Care. School-Based Health Alliance website. http://www.sbh4all.org/training/youth-development/youth-engagement-toolkit/. Published October 16, 2015. Accessed 3/29/2018.